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College Football: North Central makes history, reaches semifinals

<p>North Central quarterback Spencer Stanek (6) looks past a hand in his face to fire a pass to a Cardinal receiver. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media</p>

North Central quarterback Spencer Stanek (6) looks past a hand in his face to fire a pass to a Cardinal receiver. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media

The North Central College football team has been knocking on the doorstep of the national semifinals the past few years. Finally, the Cardinals were able to open the door.

North Central dominated Bethel 41-17 in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals Saturday in frigid Minnesota, winning a program-record 13th game of the season and advancing to next Saturday’s semifinals for the first time.

The Cardinals will play against national powerhouse Mount Union. The time and location of the game will be announced on Sunday.

All interviews Saturday were provided by NCC’s sports information staff.

“That’s something we’ve never done in the program’s history,” said senior safety Shane Dierking, who broke the NCC career record for interceptions with his 16th. “As a senior class, we have a lot of great leaders, so we wanted to pave the way for these younger guys to get into new territory. We want to play the best in the country, so we’re ready to keep going.”

The game time temperature was minus-two and Bethel’s grass field was as forgiving as a parking lot. The Cardinals (13-0) trailed for one of the few times all season in the first quarter. But after the field goal from Bethel (12-1), NCC started running its offense with typical efficiently despite the challenging conditions.

Senior quarterback Spencer Stanek completed a 38-yard pass to Ryne Rezac and a 34-yard touchdown strike to Chad O’Kane on the next play to give the Cardinals a 7-3 lead with 6:26 left in the first quarter. The Cardinals never trailed again.

“That’s pretty much the offense we would normally call,” NCC coach John Thorne said. “Our passing percentage was much lower than normal (15-for-27), but we would normally call a game very similar to that under normal conditions.

“We were ready to change some things if we had to, but luckily we had some good things happen.”

Consecutive three-and-outs forced by the NCC defense resulted in two of junior Ryan Kent’s four touchdown runs in the game. He fought for 109 yards on 28 carries to go with his four scores in the win.

“I’ve played in cold games before, but the field was pretty hard,” Kent said. “It was like playing on cement.

“It’s all the offensive line and the play calling. There are huge holes, and when you’re running behind a line like that, I can’t take too much credit for it.”

Stanek wasn’t as accurate as usual, but he still managed to throw for 249 yards and two TDs, both to O’Kane. Peter Sorenson caught seven passes for 109 yards.

Bethel actually outgained the Cardinals by six yards, but backup quarterback Tom Keefe, starting in place of the injured Erik Peterson, threw two interceptions and the Royals lost three fumbles.

“Whoever wins the turnover battle in the playoffs is going to win the game,” Dierking said. “We just had to keep punching at that football because when it’s cold the ball can come out.”

The travel was long and the game was uncomfortably cold, but considering the fact it was arguably the biggest win in program history, the Cardinals will take it and prepare for Mount Union.

“The weather and the field and all that kind of stuff make it very difficult, but it’s also going to turn into a day that both teams are going to remember forever,” Thorne said. “It was a very interesting day, a lot of fun, and we’re very excited to have the chance to move on.”

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