North Central looking to establish a new D3 powerhouse
There haven't been many American sports dynasties quite like Mount Union football.
The Alliance, Ohio, school played in the Division 3 title game 18 times in 23 years from 1996-2018.
Not that long ago, it was pointless for North Central to even dream about that type of success. But the Naperville school can establish itself as the premier Division 3 program by winning its second national championship in four years -- against Mount Union.
The two schools will square off in the D3 title game Friday (6 p.m., ESPNU) in Annapolis, Maryland. North Central (14-0) is ranked No. 1 and rolled past last year's champ, Mary Hardin-Baylor, 49-14, last week in the semifinals.
First-year North Central head coach Brad Spencer was a sophomore wide receiver when the Cardinals posted their most recent losing season, going 3-7 in 2001. It took probably a million baby steps to get from there to here, and Spencer was around for all of them.
After that losing season, there was a change in the coaching staff with John Thorne moving over from Wheaton Warrenville South High School, where he won four state titles. Thorne's son Jeff replaced him as North Central head coach in 2015.
Spencer went straight from player to coach when he was done catching passes, and has been on the North Central staff ever since. He became head coach last January when Jeff Thorne left to take a job at Western Michigan.
"When I got the job, I kind of joked with people that I'm the new old guy," Spencer said this week. "Certainly not new to the program, just new to the position. It's been quite a ride."
North Central made the playoffs for the first time in 2005 and won its first playoff game a year later. The next breakthrough happened in 2013, when the Cardinals advanced to the semifinals and headed to Ohio for their first meeting with Mount Union. North Central lost 41-40 in a snowstorm that day. Mount Union scored the winning touchdown with 1:07 left while North Central failed on 5 extra points.
"I remember everything about that game, just the whole experience," Spencer said. "I think what I remember most about it was the feeling afterward. Leaving and feeling like we were so close. We had all kinds of opportunities.
"Then the reality that you don't just get to semifinals and national championship every year. There's a lot of work and a lot of things that have to go right for that to happen."
North Central found that final step to be elusive. After the semifinal heartbreak, it missed the playoffs the next two years, then lost in the second round for three straight seasons.
In 2019, the Cardinals made another trip to Mount Union for a second-round playoff game. North Central wasn't a high seed that year, having lost its rivalry game to Wheaton. But North Central pulled out a wild 59-52 victory, with QB Broc Rutter piling up 522 passing yards. It was the first time Mount Union didn't get past the second round since 1991.
The Cardinals rode that momentum to its first national title a few weeks later. After the 2020 D3 season was canceled by the pandemic, North Central beat Mount Union again last year in the semifinals, then lost the championship game to Mary Hardin-Baylor.
"I think one of the advantages is having so many alums as coaches," Spencer said. "A lot of us played during those years where we were in the middle of trying to get to where we're at now."
The majority of the North Central coaching staff played for the school. Offensive coordinator Eric Stuedemann was on the first playoff team in 2005. Defensive coordinator Scott Dierking was part of the snowy 1-point loss to Mount Union in 2013.
This year, it's fair to say North Central is a solid favorite in the title game. Mount Union needed a late touchdown to survive against Wartburg in the semifinals.
Both teams have a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy, the Division 3 version of the Heisman. For North Central, it's running back Ethan Greenberg, a Lake Villa native who leads D3 in rushing yards. Mount Union QB Braxton Plunk is also a finalist after throwing for 4,317 yards and 48 touchdowns.
Mount Union has a 1,000-yard rusher in DeAndre Parker and the nation's leader in receiving yards in Wayne Ruby. North Central's top receiver is Lakes High School grad DeAngelo Hardy, but QB Luke Lehnan threw TD passes to four different receivers in the semifinal win.
One defensive star for North Central last week was DB Sam Taviani (Downers Grove North), who had 2 sacks and an interception.