Aug. 14, 2009

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By Adam Caparell

When talk turns to Division III it usually starts and ends with Mount Union.

The Raiders are once again defending national champs, having won their 10th title at last year's Alonzo Stagg Bowl. But repeating will not necessarily be so easy.

Nipping at Mount Union's heels are some very talented teams like Wis.-Whitewater, last year's runner-up, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Delaware Valley and North Central, to name just a few. Here's our look at 2009's top title contenders.

Delaware Valley
The Aggies are considered the favorites to win their second straight Middle Atlantic Conference championship and their fourth in the last six years. After knocking off the No. 3 and 6 teams in the country last year, but failing to make the Division III playoffs, Delaware Valley should be hungry and motivated this fall. Quarterback Mike Isgro will lead the way.

The Bombers might be off some people's radar, playing in upstate New York. But senior defensive tackle Joe Goetz will be on everyone's radar this season as Ithaca looks to dominate the Empire 8 once again. They return seven all-conference performers from last season, including four first-team selections. And if Goetz doesn't get opposing offense's attention then linebacker Matt Scalice surely will.

Mary Hardin-Baylor
Can you name the only team to beat Mount Union in the playoffs in the past five years? If you guessed the Cru then you're correct. The Crusaders have been one of the most successful programs over the past 10 years, averaging nine wins a season. The Cru will be coming off a 12-2 season that saw them reach the playoffs for the second straight year and will have their sights set on advancing past the national semifinals this fall.

Monmouth (Ill.)
The Fighting Scots offense was pretty potent last year, averaging 460-plus yards per game and scoring 75 TDs on their way to an 11-1 season, good for the most wins in school history. This fall, 35 letterwinners are back and only one starter on offense is gone from the unit that led the nation averaging 46.8 points per game.

Mount Union
What can you say about Mount Union that already hasn't been said? All the Raiders did last season was finish 15-0, winning a record 10th national championship. Sure Nate Kmic, who ran for more yards as a running back than any rusher in NCAA history - across all divisions - will not be back, but that's not going to stop the Raiders from once again being the favorites to repeat. Head coach Larry Kehres 275-21-3 record in 24 seasons at the helm.

North Central
North Central is favored to win the CCIW for the fourth straight season after coming off an 11-1 record in 2008 that included a 7-0 conference mark and a third straight league crown. A fifth straight appearance in the playoffs appears to be in the cards for North Central this year with the dynamic duo of QB Aaron Fanthorpe and RB Dominic Sulo commanding the offense.

2008 was a banner year for the Cardinals. Otterbein set school records for best start (8-0), most wins (9), and most points (427) in a season as they made the playoffs for the first time in program history. QB Jack Rafferty should be back under center after his Gagliardi Trophy worthy season in 2008.

With 10 starters back on offense, a lot will be expected out of the Profs. Quarterback Frank Wilczynski will lead the charge for the NJAC favorites after a 7-2 record in 2008. Rowan will look to capture the school's 16th league title in 37 years.

It's no secret who the Willamette offense will run through. After averaging 7.0 yards per carry last year, it's safe to say Deon Horne will get plenty of carries this fall for the Bearcats. But can Willamette top the numbers it put up last year? While the offense averaged 41.5 points per game and set school records with 498 points and 69 TDs., the defense let up only 18.2 points per in Northwest Conference play.

The Warhawks have been immensely successful over the last four years, going 55-5, winning the WIAC title each of those years and advancing to the Alonzo Stagg Bowl where they've fallen to Mount Union in each matchup, except for 2007 when they won it all. Well the more things change the more they stay the same as the Warhawks are widely expected to find their way back to Salem, Va. for yet another rematch with Mount Union.