FORT WAYNE – A lot of this is on him, just so you know. You raise the bar, everyone rises to grasp it. And now look.
Now Kevin Donley sits at this table and looks at this schedule and, good lord, here comes another No. 7 team to haunt his dreams. His Saint Francis Cougars, ranked second themselves, barely survived the previous No. 7, Saint Ambrose, in a one-point Blood Pressure Bowl last Saturday night. Now they get to go to Des Moines to face the current occupant, Grand View University, a team that Donley says mirrors his Cougars in both scheme and physical makeup, and which rose from No. 9 to supplant the Fighting Bees in this week’s poll.
If you’re keeping score at home, that means the Cougars have opened the season with No. 16 (William Penn), No. 7 and No. 7. Ahead lies No. 5 Saint Xavier and two schools who aren’t ranked at the moment, but started the season at No. 1 (Marian) and No. 25 (Robert Morris).
Welcome to the Mid-States Football Association, which is not your older brother’s Mid-States Football Association. Or even your middle brother’s.
No question the last five or six years, the Mid-States Football Association has cranked it up big time, Donley said Thursday. There’s seven, eight national contenders every year. It’s awfully difficult to make it through a schedule unscathed.
It has not always been thus. Eight or 10 years ago, the MSFA Mideast was pretty much Saint Francis and Them Others. Every year there was Walsh and McKendree and Tri-State, plus an occasional Saint Ambrose or Geneva. Everything else was 42-3.
From 2000 through 2007, the Cougars won 54 straight regular season games. They won 56 straight home games. They even won 32 straight on the road.
We’d have a couple big games every year, Donley recalls.
Now it’s week after week after week, he adds.
And, again, that’s on him, or least some of it. After a while Forty-two-To-Three got tired of being Forty-Two-To-Three, so it decided not to be anymore. Saint Xavier became, well, Saint Xavier. Marian became Marian. Pretty much everyone raised their own particular bar.
But they all know who raised it first.
I’ve had other coaches say it, Donley admits.
That’s not a complaint, mind you. You wade through half-a-dozen ranked teams in a season, you come out on the other side wearing armor plate.
And that makes you a tough out in the playoffs.
That’s the upside, Donley says. If you can get through it, it’s like a playoff schedule. You’re gonna be well-prepared by the time you get to the postseason.
His players see it that way, too. Receiver Cam Smith, who ran wild through the Saint Ambrose secondary last week, averaging 25 yards on six receptions, says the Cougars have found out a lot about themselves these first two weeks. And cornerback Tracy Hathaway sounds eager to find out even more.
You can’t be the best until you beat the best, he says. Our coaches were telling us when the season started that we had the toughest schedule in the nation, and so I took that as a personal challenge. I was really excited about it, because who wouldn’t want to have ranked opponents game after game after game?
I wish we could have it every week.
Not yet. But stick around.