Mike Drass said all the right things and he said them with sincerity. Sure, it was a disappointing loss. But it was also a learning experience for his kids, a chance for them to grow through adversity, a chance to learn a life lesson that will serve them long after they’ve taken their last snap in a football game.
But you also get the feeling that in the coming years there will be times when Drass wakes up in the middle of the night at, stares at the ceiling and wonders: What if?
As in: What if we didn’t turn the ball over six times?
And: What if we hadn’t dropped all those passes?
And: Why did we play so well in the first half and so poorly in the second?
And especially: Why didn’t we play with a little more composure, a little more confidence?
Drass is coach of the Wesley College football team and he’s been remarkably successful in turning the small school in the middle of a small state into a national Division III powerhouse. The Wolverines just got back from their third straight trip to the national semi-finals and their fifth overall. They’re firmly established as one of the top programs in the country, with seven straight NCAA tournament appearances.
In fact, they’ve done everything except the most important thing, and that’s to win a national championship. And this might have been their best shot at it, which is why Drass might face a sleepless night or two in the future.
If you know anything about Division III football you know it’s really Division II and the II are Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater, two schools that have combined to win the last six national titles. And they’ve been pretty even in that, too – each school has won it three times and in those six title tilts Mount Union has the edge in scoring by 171-170.
It happened again this year and the two teams will meet in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl for the championship. But there was a big difference this year and that could mean that the balance of power in Division III could be tipping a bit to the East.
Mount Union beat Wesley again, but this one was close and Wesley led 14-13 at halftime on Saturday before self-destructing and losing 28-21. So, at least the Wolverines are close – one lousy touchdown – which hasn’t always been the case.
In fact, up to now it’s never been the case. Wesley played Mount Union in the 2009 semifinals and got blasted 24-7. And they’ve played Wisconsin-Whitewater three times in the playoffs (2005, 2006, 2010) and lost all three by a combined score of 129-23 (or, if you prefer, by an average score of 43-7). So, to lose by just seven points and to lead at halftime on the road in perhaps the most intimidating stadium in Division III football is a huge step forward for the Wolverines.
But it’s also a huge opportunity lost (or, more to the point, dropped). Wesley was finally going toe-to-toe with one of the two giants in their division and they had that giant staggering. But then there were a couple of quick turnovers to start the second half and suddenly Wesley was the one on the ropes, trailing 28-14. The Wolverines didn’t give up even though they were playing in a hostile environment against a powerful opponent and they didn’t allow Mount Union to walk away with the game – they had to earn it. And that is what made Drass proudest of all – there was no quit in Wesley.
But that is a moral victory and Wesley is well past the point where moral victories mean anything. Drass and his staff have built an elite program and only one thing satisfies an elite program – a national championship.
Wesley will get another shot at it because they’ve established something special in Dover. The Wolverines just have to hope that their best shot isn’t the one that just barely missed on Saturday.