NCC looks to bounce back after tough playoff loss
By Brian Miller For Sun-Times Media August 30, 2011 10:34PM
North Central receiver Joe Antonacci dives for extra yardage after contact from the Ohio Northern University defense in November. The Neuqua graduate returns this season to the receiving corps. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 30, 2011 12:23AM
Up until approximately 3:30 p.m on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010, the North Central College football team was living a dream season.
Then a nightmare struck in the form of a narrow, playoff-ending 20-10 loss to No. 1 Wisconsin-Whitewater, which two weeks later was crowned the NCAA Division III national champion for the third time in four years and second year in a row.
A huge advantage playing the powerhouse program at home had slipped away in the second half, and the dream season had ended with small consolation of two strong playoff wins, a 12-1 overall record and No. 3 final ranking in the collegiate polls.
This season, the Cardinals are back for revenge, and this time they have a few more believers on their side, starting the season at No. 4 in the D3football.com poll. Of course, the Warhawks are still perched mightily on their throne, collecting 19 of 25 first place votes, and will be waiting for NCC in some round of the playoffs, in theory anyway.
“We’re just building off what we did last year,” North Central assistant coach Jeff Thorne said, in stead of his father and head coach John Thorne, who was attending to personal business. “Certainly, there’s no lack of confidence at this point. We know what the best team looks like. We know we were close. We know we had the lead late in the game.
“In the end, they made more plays to win the game than we did,” he added. “We made a few mistakes, but I really feel a lot of those were forced mistakes. Whitewater made the plays when they had to make them and that’s why they’ve won three national titles in the last four years. But we feel like we can play with anyone in the country.”
For now, North Central must take care of business, starting with a plane flight to southern California for Saturday’s season opener at University of Redlands, which is receiving votes in the first poll.
“It’s not so much thinking that we’re not an also-ran anymore, the thought that’s in my mind is in ‘09 we started No. 4 also and went to Ohio Northern and tripped,” said Thorne, also the offensive coordinator. “So we’ve got a really, really big test in Redlands, which was 8-1 last year. We watched them on tape and they are a fantastic team. Kids in California get to play any sport they want to play year round so you know we’re going to go out there and face really, really good athletes.
“So this is a huge test and our kids aren’t thinking about anything other than this week and we’ve really stressed that. Our long term goal is to do something bigger than what we did last year, but if we don’t look at each week one by one, you take your eye off the ball, you’re going to trip and stumble.”
Along the way, the Cardinals will have only three other road games and will face preseason No. 8 Wheaton College at home in the second to last game of the regular season.
“We’re fortunate to have six home games this year out of the 10,” Thorne said. “For our seniors, it’s the biggest group we’ve ever had, it’s an opportunity for them to play six games instead of five, but we have to get this season off to a good start. The last thing we want to do is fly out to California and lay an egg, and then come home to play a Bethel team from Tennessee that’s a scholarship team. It’s going to be a huge test again.”
This North Central is the fastest team all around that school has had. They will need every bit of it and their vast senior leadership to make up for the presence of two huge personas on each side of the ball, starting with the Cardinals all-time leading receiver Steve Hlavac.
“You just don’t replace a guy like Steve Hlavac,” Thorne said. “He made so many unbelievable plays for us, going all the way back to his freshman year when he was unbelievable in the playoffs. We do have eight guys that we’re comfortable with. We’re faster than we’ve ever been at receiver by quite a bit. It’s given us an added dimension we’ve not had.”
Seniors Nick Hicks, Manny Juarez and Joe Antonacci are the most experienced, ahead of the other five. Add in 6-foot-7 tight end Kyle Fiedorowicz, who was named a preseason All-American this summer, and you have legitimate offensive weapons outside the tackles.
“Kyle understands things a lot more than he did as a freshman and sophomore,” Thorne said. “Last year, he made huge progress late in the season. He was making plays all over the place. He had a great spring. He had a great offseason in terms of preparing his body. We’re really excited about what he’s going to so this year.”
Quarterback will revert back to former Oswego East standout Brad Crackel, who was the starter at the beginning of the 2010 season before an injury allowed Spencer Stanek to reclaim the position and guide the team into the postseason.
Now Crackel is healthy and feeling comfortable in the role, but he won’t be the only weapon at the position with Naperville North alum Jordan Tassio taking virtually all of the reps in the spring while Crackel played baseball.
The two styles are different, but complementary as Thorne intends to work it.
“We’re really excited about what Brad brings with his skill set relative to what we’ve had in the past,” Thorne said. And Jordan’s improved immensely in terms of his overall knowledge of our offense and the execution of the passing game. His role when we put him at quarterback has expanded quite a bit and we’re really excited about that, too.
“A lot of teams have change of pace running backs, we have change of pace quarterbacks. That is going to force teams to prepare multiple gameplans for us, which is a luxury.”
But by far the biggest roster change the Cardinals must contend with will be the absence of linebacker Matt Wenger, he of the 12 plus tackles a game average combined with numerous game-changing defensive moments and unrivaled leadership skills and desire.
Fifth-year senior Kane Thompson and senior Joey Michaels will be expected to do a lot at the position.
“We expect them to play well, but the reality is you just don’t replace a guy like Matt,” Thorne said. “It’s not going to happen. He’s potentially a once in a lifetime player for a coach at this level.”
The bright spot is that while the front four and linebacking core will be missing Wenger’s tenacious presence, the secondary is the defense’s strength.
That includes senior corner Josh McLeod, who was also named a preseason All-American, and sophomore Shane Dierking, who’s transitioned well since coming over from Wheaton-Warrenville South to start on the other side.
“I think our back four may be the strength of our team,” Thorne said. “Our front four slash eight should be terrific, but our speed in the secondary we’ve never had before. Speed in general for this team, we’re very fortunate.”
The Cardinals were 11-1 in 2008 before losing in the first round of the playoffs. Then they went 8-2 after the aforementioned Ohio Northern slip-up in 2009.
Last year’s extraordinary bounce back season has instilled confidence — now running rampant — that the program can reach another new height. The talent is there, but then you just never know.
“We feel good, but you always go into a season as a new group,” Thorne said. “Each year is a different team. We haven’t played a game with this group yet, so until you get out there and play a game — as confident as you may be — there’s still butterflies.”