By DOUG HENNES
St. Thomas will open the NCAA Division III football playoffs at home Saturday with a noon game against a familiar opponent – St. Norbert College of De Pere, Wis.
The No. 3 Tommies (10-0, 8-0 MIAC) defeated the Green Knights (8-2) in season-opening games in 2010 and 2011, winning 20-7 at home last year and 40-7 on the road in 2010.
“St. Norbert routinely puts together a really good football team and has made a lot of post-season appearances (10 overall and nine in the last 14 years),” St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said of the Midwest Conference co-champions. “It should be a good game.”
St. Thomas is one of four teams with top seeds in the 32-team field, along with Mount Union, Linfield and Mary-Hardin Baylor. If the Tommies defeat St. Norbert, they would host Saturday’s Coe-Elmhurst winner at home on Nov. 24.
Caruso gathered his team in the football locker room for the 5 p.m. NCAA show to announce the pairings. A No. 1 regional seed “is a nice reminder of the respect we have been able to garner,” he said, but he emphasized that every team has the same record as the playoffs begin. “Our record today is 0-0” were the words on the screen behind Caruso.
“It’s another week to be together again as a family,” he told his players, and another screen shot stated: “Don’t forget to enjoy the journey – we are living the dream.”
One player excited to continue the journey is Michael Valesano, a fifth-year senior linebacker from Brainerd. He played on Caruso’s first two playoff teams in 2009 and 2010 but missed last year’s run because of an early season-ending injury.
“Watching from the sidelines was hard for me, but I was there every single game,” said Valesano, who leads St. Thomas defenders with 40 tackles (31 solos and 18 assists). “It’s a great blessing to be on the field this year.”
Valesano said the Tommies are confident heading into the playoffs, having completed their third consecutive 10-0 regular season and riding a 13-game winning streak in O’Shaughnessy Stadium. The last home loss was to Bethel in the NCAA playoffs two years ago.
“We are very comfortable here,” he said. “It’s always nice to play at home.”
St. Norbert had to defeat Midwest co-champion Lake Forest 20-10 on Saturday to earn the playoff bid. The Green Knights opened their season with a 40-3 loss to John Carroll in Ireland and lost 31-9 at Monmouth, but have won their last five games.
They have a balanced offensive attack with 320 yards per game (177 passing and 177 rushing). Quarterback James Trigati has completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,628 yards and 15 touchdowns, and Austin Williams is the leading rushing with 797 yards.
In their 2011 season opener at home, the Tommies spotted St. Norbert a 7-0 lead in the first quarter but scored 20 unanswered points to win. They limited St. Norbert to 180 yards (32 rushing) and 3 of 21 third-down conversions, forced 10 punts and recorded six sacks.
This is St. Thomas’ fourth consecutive – and fifth overall – trip to the NCAA playoffs. The Tommies are 8-4 in the playoffs and 7-3 under Caruso, advancing to the quarterfinals in 2009 and 2010 and the semifinals last year.
Three other Minnesota and Wisconsin teams will be the playoffs. Bethel will play at Concordia-Chicago and UW-Oshkosh will host St. Scholastica.
Concordia-Moorhead (8-2), which tied Bethel for second in the MIAC at 6-2, did not make the field.