No. 1 North Central tries to carry dominance into D3 playoffs
There can be problems associated with being the No. 1-ranked team in Division 3.
For example, is it possible North Central College has been too dominant?
Since beating Wheaton 33-20 on Oct. 1, the Cardinals have won their last six games by a combined score of 359-6. Seven of their wins this season have been by at least 52 points.
North Central will eventually be tested on the field. Playoff competition beings Saturday when Lake Forest visits for a first-round game in Naperville.
"Every week you're preparing the same," first-year North Central head coach Brad Spencer said this week. "You're breaking down opponents the same way, you're spending the same practice time each week. So your prep doesn't change.
"There's a lot of uncontrollables in football, just like in life. We try to control the controllables, not worry about the things that are outside our reach. We feel like if we're preparing every singe week the same way, then you're preparing yourself the best way you can for those strong opponents we're going to see."
After 20 years of being led by a member of the Thorne family, North Central turned to someone from its own family to take leadership of the program. Spencer hasn't been at any other college. He played for the Cardinals from 2000-04, then immediately joined the staff as wide receivers coach. He moved up to offensive coordinator in 2015, then took the head job last winter when Jeff Thorne left to take a role at Western Michigan.
Spencer, who played receiver for Naperville Central's 1999 state championship team, was at North Central when John Thorne became head coach after leading Wheaton Warrenville South to four high school state titles.
Thorne's son Jeff became head coach of the Cardinals in 2015 and four years later, North Central won its first national title. The 2020 season was canceled by the pandemic, then North Central lost the D-3 title game last year to Mary Hardin Baylor.
Running back Ethan Greenfield was player of the game when the Cardinals beat Wisconsin-Whitewater to win the 2019 national title. The Lakes High School grad is still around, now with over 6,000 career rushing yards. Another Lakes grad, DeAngelo Hardy, is the Cardinals' leading receiver with 721 yards and 12 touchdowns.
DT Dan Lester Jr. (Vernon Hills) was named CCIW co-defensive player of the year. North Central has plenty of suburban contributors on defense with S Julian Bell (Oswego), CB Antwain Walker (Oswego East), LB Sam Taviani (Downers Grove North) and LB Angelo Cusamano (Glenbard North), among many others.
North Central and Lake Forest have played just once in the last 49 years. That was in the 2018 season opener, a 70-14 North Central win.
Lake Forest (9-1) is in the playoffs for the second-straight year and third time ever. The Forresters recruit nationally, but one local player of note is Wauconda native Doug Antonucci. He was named All-Midwest Conference as a special-teams player and credited with blocking four punts this season.
The winner of this game will face the winner of Carnegie Mellon vs. DePauw next week. Both of North Central's paths to the title game included huge road victories over D3 power Mount Union, but this year Mount Union is on the other side of the bracket. The Division 3 title game will be held in Annapolis, Md. on Dec. 16.
There are two other Division 3 playoff games featuring local teams this weekend:
Aurora at Wis-Whitewater
Aurora University (9-1) is in the playoffs for the third straight year under head coach Don Beebe, the former NFL wide receiver. The Spartans rank second in the country in scoring at 50.1 points per game.
Aurora boasts a strong running game behind Jhe'Quay Chretin (1,184 yards) and Ta'vion Geanes (Willowbrook). Trey Madsen (Aurora Christian) is the top receiver, while CB Conner Nordmeyer (Lakes) shares the team lead with 5 interceptions.
Whitewater is led by former Lake Zurich QB Evan Lewandowski (2.094 passing yards), along with top receiver Tyler Holte (St. Edward). LB Ryan Liszka (Benet) and DB Egon Hein (St. Charles North) are the leading tacklers. Whitewater won six national titles between 2007-14.
Bethel (Minn.) at Wheaton
Wheaton (8-2) is making its 13th playoff appearance and is 12-0 all-time in the first round. The Thunder are in a non-Midwest quadrant this year, with this winner matched up against either Linfield or Pomona-Pitzer, two West Coast schools, next week.
Wheaton QB Will Bowers has thrown for 2,600 yards with a 76.3 completion percentage. Some area all-conference players are TE Ben Juska (Westmont), OL Trevor Gabriele (Wheaton North), OL Graham Wall (Wheaton Academy), DB Max Wilson (WWS), and DE Brayden Anthony (Wheaton North).