Nov. 22, 2008

Courtesy North Central Athletics

Nov. 22, 2008 - Thomas More College rode a wave of emotion to a strong start, but the firm resolve and cool execution of the North Central College Cardinals ruled the day, as the top-seeded hosts defeated the Saints, 44-23, in the first round of the NCAA Division III Football Playoffs at Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium.

The Cardinals advance to the North Region semifinal on Saturday against Franklin College (Ind.), which defeated Otterbein College in a 62-45 shootout in the opening round. North Central faces the Grizzlies for the second straight postseason after beating Franklin, 44-42, on its home field in the first round in 2007.

Thomas More (8-3) came out of the gate with purpose, forcing a fumble on the game's opening drive and going deep for a 68-yard pass play from quarterback Trevor Stellman to Chris Farley two plays later. Stellman ran for a two-yard touchdown with 10:13 left in the first quarter, giving the eighth-seeded Saints an early 7-0 advantage.

The Cardinals took over at their own 40-yard line with 6:36 remaining in the period after a punt to begin their first scoring drive. Aaron Fanthorpe (Jr., Naperville, Ill./Naperville North) went deep to Joe Sosinski (Sr., New Carlisle, Ind./New Prairie) for a 40-yard pass to jumpstart the North Central offense, and Dominic Sulo (Jr., Oak Forest, Ill./Mt. Carmel) ran four yards for a score with 3:59 left in the period. The extra-point attempt failed, leaving the visitors with a 7-6 edge.

The Saints advanced deep into North Central territory on the ensuing possession, but the drive stalled and Thomas More settled for a 33-yard field goal, boosting its lead to 10-6. The Cardinals took their first lead of the day early in the second period. After opening a drive with a 48-yard pass to Michael MacIntosh (Sr., Decatur, Ill./Mt. Zion), Fanthorpe found Phillip Rossberg (Jr., Tinley Park, Ill./Andrew) for a five-yard TD pass, and the home team moved in front to stay.

Thomas More's next possession ended early, as Derek Sulo (Jr., Oak Forest, Ill./Mt. Carmel) intercepted a pass by Stellman and returned it to the Saints' 40. Dominic Sulo needed two rushes to get to the goal line, scoring on a 31-yard scamper that widened North Central's lead to 20-10 with 5:41 left before halftime.

The North Central defense forced a Saints punt on the opening drive of the second half, and the hosts traveled 60 yards in 11 plays to post their next score, as Andrew Barciszewski (Fr., Troy, Ill./Triad) kicked a 23-yard field goal. Scott Skuteris (Fr., Elmhurst, Ill./York) picked off a pass at the Thomas More 40-yard line on the next possession, providing the Cardinals' offense with a short field. Four plays later, Fanthorpe connected with Steve Hlavac (So., Naperville, Ill./Naperville North) for a 10-yard touchdown pass, and the Cardinals led, 30-10, with 5:53 remaining in the third period.

A pass interference penalty on third down helped keep the next North Central drive alive early in the fourth period, and the Cardinals took advantage to post a fifth unanswered score. Fanthorpe threw to MacIntosh for 24 yards, then found Joe Rubin (Sr., Roselle, Ill./Lake Park) for a seven-yard score. Stellman engineered a seven-play, 64-yard drive on the next Thomas More possession, getting the Saints into the end zone on a seven-yard pass to Chris Farley and narrowing the gap to 37-17.

The Cardinals' final touchdown of the afternoon came just three plays later, as Pat Malek (Jr., St. Charles, Ill./St. Charles North) ran through the middle of Thomas More's defense for a 58-yard score. The Saints' Mercier Doucette returned a punt 62 yards to the end zone on the final play of the game.

Fanthorpe, named the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin Offensive Player of the Year earlier this week, finished the day 17 of 21 passing for 339 yards. MacIntosh caught six passes for 137 yards, while Sosinski made three grabs for 117 yards. Dominic Sulo ran 24 times for 106 yards, leaving him just 13 yards short of his third straight 1,000-yard season. Sulo also now has 206 career points, tying him for the North Central College record.

Matt Wenger (Jr., Davis, Ill./Dakota) turned in a game-high 12 tackles and an interception to lead North Central's defense, while David Treglown (Sr., Naples, Fla./Barron Collier) made eight stops and Tim Janecek (Jr., Bridgeview, Ill./Argo) made seven tackles.

Stellman completed 22 of 36 passes for 284 yards, throwing seven times to Farley, who gained 123 yards. Cordario Collier was the Saints' top rusher with 36 yards on 17 carries. Brad Steinmetz was Thomas More's top tackler with seven.

North Central (11-0) hosts Franklin (10-1) on Saturday at noon.