Six steps to winning Wheaton's first ever Division III football championship

By Cassidy Thornburg

1. Win the conference with a perfect record

Coach Mike Swider’s Gatorade shower, covertly deployed by seniors Caden Sigler and Spencer Rowland, celebrated the Thunder football team’s 58-0 win over the Elmhurst Bluejays on Nov. 16. This victory capped off their undefeated season and punched their ticket to the playoffs.

Dripping with Gatorade, Coach Swider led the team to the 50-yard line where they received their trophy, nearly knocking CCIW’s Executive Director Maureen Harty over in the process.

“Winning a conference championship is always special and seeing the elation on the faces of these young men was memorable,” Harty said. “They work so hard all season and have to stay focused on the next game. Just for that day, they were able to celebrate.”

To capture the moment and the Thunder football program’s 19th conference victory, the team took pictures with the trophy in almost every group imaginable — defensive backs, offense, seniors, linemen, linebackers, sophomores and more.

Kicker Griffin Bowes jokingly called out toward the end of the photoshoot, “Alright, now come take a picture with the trophy if you lived on Traber Four your freshman year.”

Before the Thunder left the field, Coach Swider held the trophy up high and gave one last word.

“Let’s play another,” he called out to his team, looking forward to the first week of playoffs.

2. Beat Martin Luther in round one of the NCAA playoffs

The NCAA Selection show on Nov. 16 revealed the Thunder’s first round opponent, Martin Luther University, a team who finished their regular season in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference undefeated (9-0).

On the eve of their first playoff game, the Thunder met for their ritual Friday night chapel. They sang, listened to an inspirational message, heard senior testimonies and finished with a message from Coach Swider, who pushed his players to “play hard, play fast and play physical” against Martin Luther.

While the Thunder beat Martin Luther convincingly, they lacked consistency and made mistakes that wouldn’t fly against one of the top tier opponents in Division III football. Before celebrating the team’s performance, following the 51-7 victory, Coach Swider posed a challenge to all 109 players.

“I told our football team if we want to win next week, we need to play better than we did today,” Coach Swider said. “When the team said they had high goals, I knew they would respond positively to my challenge: our performance was not good enough to help us continue to win, so we have to get better.”

After hearing Coach Swider’s challenge, wide receiver Adam Terrini said, “Offensively, we had some turnovers which we can’t have, especially now in the playoffs. Turning the ball over the way we have been will get us beat, so we have to fix that and make the necessary improvements.”

“Turnovers kill drives and put the defense in a bad position,” offensive lineman Clay Wagner said, agreeing with Terrini. “We have to prepare the whole week, not underestimate our opponent and get ready for them like we would prepare for a number one seed.”

3. Defeat Central Iowa in round two of the NCAA playoffs

The Thunder put up 35 points in the first quarter and scored six touchdowns before the half. Their sense of urgency from the first snap to the last propelled the Thunder to a 49-13 victory.

“We started fast, we really played well and I’m excited for our football team,” Coach Swider said after the game. “We have a great group of young men.”

The Thunder had 474 yards of total offense in large part due to quarterback Luke Anthony. Anthony threw for 265 yards, an individual season-high. He had five touchdowns on the day of the game, another season high, and threw his second-longest touchdown of the season, a 69-yard missile to wide receiver Matthew Tucker with just over three minutes remaining in the first half.

“We were trying to start out fast all week,” Anthony said. “It was nice to see the defense get two turnovers in the first quarter. It gave our offense a great field position. We got energy from them and put the ball in the end zone.”

On both sides of the ball, the Thunder didn’t give Central Iowa many opportunities to make plays, but the No. 23 nationally ranked Dutch still fought until the clock ran out.

“First of all, they played a really hard game,” defensive lineman Patrick O’Connell said. “We knew coming into the game that they weren’t going to give up because they’ve had quite a run this year. They showed a ton of fight, lining up every play across from us. We knew that they were going to give everything they had, and I respect that a lot in those guys.”

But the Thunder fought harder. “We remained confident in what we got in our room, in our team, and we just executed as we needed to,” O’Connell said.

4. Defend the home turf against St. John’s (Minn.) in the NCAA Quarterfinals

On Saturday, the Thunder will host the NCAA Quarterfinals for the first time in program history.

“Hosting is just so big — to not to have to travel on a Friday and not be on a bus for six hours,” Coach Swider said.

The last time the Thunder played December football and advanced to the third round of the NCAA playoffs was in 2016, the current seniors’ freshman year. With so many of the senior class being transfers and a limit to how many get to travel, only five current athletes played against Mary-Hardin Baylor that year, including senior Phillip Nichols.

Nichols started all 13 games his freshman year, including the final one of the season at Crusader Stadium in Belton, Texas where he caught two passes and contributed to the Thunder’s first score with a 27-yard long firstdown drive.

In 2016, Nichols’ all-time high receiving yards per game was 133, and this year it’s 207. With plenty of experience under his belt, he’s ready to lead the Thunder this weekend.

Stone Watson also has a history in the quarterfinals, and with 100 rushing yards, a season-high for him against Central Iowa last week, he’s ready to roll against St. John’s and also sees this weekend as a testament to the 2016 team.

“We had a couple of years where we fell short, but those guys really laid the groundwork for this team and the opportunity we have right now,” Watson said. “Guys like Eric Stevenson and Jacob Cretin really set the precedent.”

Four years later, Nichols, Watson, Terrini, O’Connell and Daniel Herber are leading their team to the quarterfinals with the opportunity to take the Thunder farther than they went in 2016.

The game is at noon in McCully Stadium against Saint John’s. Last week, St. John’s beat Chapman College 55-26 in a much warmer Orange, Calif.

If the Thunder beat St. John’s this week, the team would boast the best record in program history. At 12-0, the Thunder are currently tied with the 2003 team.

5. Do something that’s never been done before and in the Semi’s

If the Thunder advance past St. John’s, they will meet the winner of the Mary-Hardin Baylor vs. Wisconsin-Whitewater game in the NCAA division three semi-finals on Dec. 14. The competition would be narrowed down from eight to four teams all fighting for a spot in the NCAA D3 championships.

6. Win a championship on national television

The NCAA Division III championships, or Stagg Bowl, brings together the best two small college teams in the nation. This year the annual competition will be held Dec. 20 at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas, and broadcast on ESPN. If the Thunder don’t lose their next two games, they will not only be the first team in program history to do so, but they will also get to wave to their friends and family on the big screen.

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