They're big time on small scale

Colleges: The state doesn't need to take a back seat to any in the quality of its Division III football teams.

October 25, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The Division III collegiate football programs in Maryland have developed into a fearsome foursome.

With slightly more than half of their schedules completed, the state's four NCAA Division III members sport a gaudy, 19-5 record, one that was even better before last weekend, when Frostburg State suffered an overtime loss at Catholic and Johns Hopkins was beaten for the first time this fall by Muhlenberg.

Also, except for some hard-luck defeats by the 3-3 Bobcats - who dropped two other games by three points to tough Montclair State and to SUNY-Brockport in triple overtime - and a 23-20 setback for McDaniel by Bridgewater (Va.), ranked No. 2 nationally, the won-lost total would be even more striking.

All four schools are in the hunt for their respective conference championships, and season-ending battles between Salisbury and Frostburg and Johns Hopkins and McDaniel could decide the races.

Salisbury (6-0), Johns Hopkins (5-1) and McDaniel (5-1) are potential postseason participants.

What are the reasons behind the success?

Depending on the program, the answers range from:

Maturity to immediate input by freshmen.

Diligent, hard-working players and coaches.

Opposition that is somewhat weaker this season.

Upgrades in recruiting and the caliber of Maryland high school players, the primary pipeline for the state's Division III teams (internationally known Hopkins being the exception).

And, because of cutbacks in scholarships at Division I-A schools over the years and athletes' desire to play rather than ride the bench with higher-profile schools, Division III teams in general have more of a talent pool available.

"All four of our schools take football seriously," said McDaniel coach Tim Keating, whose program has won or shared the Centennial Conference crown the past five years. "I think we've got really good coaches who work their rear ends off.

"I'd love to see the day when we all play each other, have a state title. We all like each other, and I don't see any ill will coming out of those games."

McDaniel (nee Western Maryland) has been the standard bearer recently and is ranked 18th in the nation. Salisbury is 20th after denting the rankings for the first time since they were initiated three years ago. Hopkins has also received mention.

On the shore, the Sea Gulls are punishing opponents with a triple-option running attack that leads the nation with 377.7 yards a game. Its catalyst is a freshman quarterback, Dustin Johnson of nearby Delmar.

Senior running back Tony Ellis is on the threshhold of breaking the school rushing record, and fullback Reggie Boyce (Dunbar) completes a threesome, each of whom has run for at least 549 yards.

"It took a while to get here, but we wanted to compete with the best on the East Coast," said coach Sherm Wood, who's in his fourth season.

"I truly believe [high school] kids in this state are becoming much more athletic and skilled. The talent pool is much better. And to kids nowadays, it's just as important to play, regardless of the level. Our goal is to get in touch with everybody we can."

Ellis originally went to Bethune-Cookman but was unhappy. "I wanted to get on the field as opposed to sitting and waiting," he said. Boyce started at Florida A&M, went to Montgomery Junior College and "got tired of bouncing around. Poor decisions and bad luck."

After 2 1/2 years of not playing, he got in touch with Wood, whom he had known at Bowie State.

Johnson credited the offensive line "for getting to the second and third [blocking] level" to make the ground game go." And you've got to stop all three of us. I know when I was recruited, I saw a lot of good players here. I think we can be a Division III powerhouse."

He believes that "every game is a playoff game" because Salisbury will not receive an automatic NCAA bid from a four-team league.

"We're not just satisfied with 6-0," said one of the defensive stalwarts, Pat Brannan (Loyola). "This is just a stepping stone for this program."

Hopkins coach Jim Margraff alternated three quarterbacks during the team's best start in 71 years (5-0). There are no real stars anywhere on the squad, just a cohesive, hard-working unit.

"We're not big, but we're playing with a lot more passion and confidence," said defensive tackle Pat Doyle, one of the co-captains. "And a couple of freshmen are coming up big for us."

Margraff said he has "a tremendous group of freshmen who are good and smart. I just wish we could get some of the lacrosse players out for football." (Athletes playing a Division I sport cannot play Division III football.)

With Boo Harris leading the offense, McDaniel went 8-2 last season, and only a loss to Hopkins kept the team from its fifth straight outright Centennial title. The Green Terror always expects to win.

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