Photo by CJ Halloran (Special to True To The Cru)
NAPERVILLE, Ill.- North Central knows how to win in the postseason.
A playoff 12-1 record since 2019 is perfect evidence of that. In each of the last two D-III tournaments, the Cardinals have reached the Stagg Bowl, and in the case of 2019, won it all for the program’s first national championship. They are 2-1 in semifinal matchups. And in their first three games of the 2022 postseason, NCC outscored the opposition, 126-14. Two of those three opponents were nationally ranked.
“I think that’s why you’ve seen so many big scores for us, is we’re really focusing on our performance,” NCC head coach Brad Spencer said Tuesday. “If you’re always playing to your standard each week, you’re probably going to have big scores against lesser teams and then against good teams you’re still going to have a really good output.”
The Cardinals will need a good output indeed, if reaching a third straight Stagg Bowl is in the cards, as they host No. 3 UMHB on Saturday in a highly-anticipated semifinal matchup.
“Honestly, Mary Hardin-Baylor, we feel like, is the standard right now in D-III football,” Spencer added. “Our preparation has to be really strong and obviously we’re going to look at what we did well and did poorly against them last year and try to make the necessary adjustments.”
Spencer speaks from experience. Just under a year ago, he was on the sidelines in Canton, Ohio, as NCC’s offensive coordinator. In the first-ever meeting between the Cardinals and the Cru, it proved to be tough sledding, especially for NCC on the defensive side of the ball. Spencer’s offense scored 24 points, but UMHB put 57 on the board, swiftly capturing the 2021 national title.
So naturally, much of the storyline heading into Saturday’s matchup surrounds “the rematch”, and while Spencer admits there is an obvious sense of “seeking revenge” from his squad, that is not where the Cardinals are pulling motivation from.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of guys and staff who have a bad taste in their mouth from last year,” Spencer noted. “But a lot of times, those are extrinsic motivations. We want to be intrinsically motivated by our own preparation and performance. That’s been our focus since week 1. There are so many things in football that are out of your control.”
In every contest this season, throughout both the 10-game regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs, NCC has taken control of its pursuit of victory, evident by the wide winning margins. A part of that stems from the senior leadership found on the roster; eight offensive starters and five defensive starters are back from last year’s squad.
“We have a lot of upperclassmen back who were on the field for that game, and really for the last two Stagg Bowls,” Spencer said. “This senior group, particularly the fifth-year seniors, have raised our level of expectation and standards within our program by how they live out our mission everyday.”
One of the most notable from that senior group is running back Ethan Greenfield, who, like UMHB’s Kyle King, is one of four finalists for the prestigious Gagliardi Trophy. The leading rusher in D-III, Greenfield has carried the Cardinal offense, tallying 3,764 yards on the ground. But just as impressive is the number of rushing yards the Cardinal defense is giving up.
Through 13 games, NCC has given up a mere 53 rushing yards per game, fourth-best nationally. Against the pass, opposing quarterbacks have a dismal passing efficiency of just 87.34. And even when opponents have found enough offensive traction to reach the red zone, the Cardinal defense is allowing points on just 44.4 percent of those trips, which ranks No. 1 in the country.
“We lost a number of guys on defense from last year, particularly on the back half, at linebacker and defensive back,” Spencer said. “The strength of our defense in our D-Line, not only with the returners we have, but the emergence of Danny Lester, at defensive tackle, who was the Player of the Year in our conference. Anytime you have a number of seniors up front, you feel like that’s a good place to anchor in your defense.”
Then there’s the linebackers unit, highlighted by Sam Taviani and BJ Adamchik. The duo leads the team in tackles and is also excellent in pass coverage. The secondary, with a handful of new starters, has improved as the season has progressed,
“I think our defense has done a great job of feeding off of each other,” Spencer said. “The linebackers have gotten better each and every week. The guys are coming together and peaking at the right time.”
Spencer speaks from experience. For the last 22 years, he has been part of the NCC program, seeing things from a variety of perspectives since the day he stepped onto the Naperville campus as an 18-year old wide receiver in 2000. After lettering four years for the Cardinals, he joined the coaching staff, and never left. From 2004-2019 he served as the receivers coach, taking on the title of offensive coordinator in 2015. Then, following Jeff Thorne’s departure to Western Michigan in February, Spencer was promoted to head coach.
Like UMHB, NCC has had to adjust to a new face leading them into battle, but in a similar situation, it really has not been all that “new”.
“It’s night and day going from being a coordinator to being a head coach. But the positive for me is that this is my 24th year around the program, so stepping into the head coaching role, you already know the rhythms and policies of the program, the campus and the administration. The consistency of our staff and our players is a huge key and makes my life a lot easier. All the brick and mortar and foundation is laid, so to speak, you just have to take the reins and direct in the best way for your staff and your players each year.”
Because NCC has reached the last two Stagg Bowls, it is easy to assume that all the Cardinals have done in 2022 is follow the pattern of what worked in 2019 and 2021. They haven’t reinvented the wheel, but regardless of the previous year, each new season brings about a new set of challenges. Challenges that must be met with a new gameplan.
“It’s different each year,” Spencer said. “You can’t just hit copy-paste, because we’ve been to the last two Stagg Bowls. You have to evaluate each year where your staff is, where your players are, what injuries you’re managing. Each puzzle is different.”
As he looks into Saturday’s matchup, Spencer cannot help but think back on the seasons, those both good and bad, that have shaped NCC into one of the nation’s top-ranked programs. Being an alum of NCC, there is a deep sense of pride expressed from both him and his coaching staff, six of whom are also alumni of the program. They know what it’s taken to get here, and in the Cardinals’ first-ever home semifinal contest, are prepared for a battle.
“The days of us being 6-4, and 7-3 are very fresh in my mind,” Spencer added. “We never forget where we came from and what it took to build to get us here. We’re standing on the shoulders of a lot of coaches and players who have really sweat and bled to get us to where we’re at.”