Of course Franklin College football coach Mike Leonard would love nothing more than to make a deep run in the NCAA Division III playoffs this season. Postseason success is the obvious goal of every football program at every level.
But in order to win postseason games, you’ve got to make it there. That means taking care of business in September and October first.
“Everybody talks championships,” Leonard said, “but how do you win them?”
The answer, his Grizzlies say, is by treating the schedule as a series of one-week seasons.
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The Franklin players put together an eight-item list with the heading, “What will we need to win a championship in 2016?” The third item on that list? To go 1-0 each week.
Leonard said he’s trying to live by that same mantra.
“If we just concentrate this week — Saturday,” the coach said. “I’ve got to make sure we’re ready to go Saturday.”
This Saturday is the first true test of that method. The Grizzlies, coming off an 8-3 season and a Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference title, open the 2016 campaign with a 6 p.m. home game against Thomas More.
The Saints won their first 11 games last year by an average of more than 30 points before suffering an overtime defeat in the second round of the NCAA playoffs.
Franklin, meanwhile, has been perfect in HCAC play the past two seasons but is 0-6 in nonconference games during that time, including a pair of first-round NCAA losses. Leonard hopes to turn that around this year by becoming a bit more physical, something that should be helped by having a full-time certified strength coach on staff for the first time in David Watson.
In last year’s tournament loss to Ohio Northern, the Grizzlies had a 16-0 halftime lead but couldn’t hold it due to an inability to put together extended drives in the snow.
Leonard and new offensive coordinator Craig Yeast are stressing better balance this year. That doesn’t necessarily mean running an equal amount of rush and pass plays; rather, it just means having the ability to do both equally well when the situation calls for it.
“When they know you’re going to throw it, we’ve got to be able to throw it,” Leonard said. “When they know we’re going to run it, we’ve got to be able to run it. And sure, we’ve got to be able to keep them off balance with play action and draws and screens. But you’ve got to be able to do what you need to do when you need to do it.”
Despite the addition of Yeast and the promotion to defensive coordinator of longtime assistant Mel Mills, there shouldn’t be any wholesale changes to how the Grizzlies operate. Yeast said that it was easier for him to learn Franklin’s offense than it would have been for all the players to learn his, so he’s sticking with the same basic system and putting his focus on mastering the details of it.
The hope is that junior quarterback Chase Burton, who threw for 3,850 yards and 36 touchdowns as a sophomore, will do just that. Though three of the top six receivers from are gone, there are plenty of returning weapons, most notably junior wideout L Wroblewski (56 catches, 850 yards, 11 TD) and senior running back Ty’Ronte Files (759 yards).
Leonard is hopeful that Burton will be much more comfortable in his role, which should lead to increased productivity across the board.
“(Burton) was kind of a renter of the offense last year; it really wasn’t his,” Leonard stated. “We want it to become his these next two years; we want him to own the offense.”
If it all falls into place, the Grizzlies could make that postseason push that hasn’t materialized in recent years.
Nobody’s worrying about anything beyond Saturday just yet, though.
Franklin College Grizzlies
2016 football schedule
Saturday;Thomas More;6 p.m.
Sept. 10;at Butler;6:30 p.m.
Sept. 17;at Defiance;1:30 p.m.
Sept. 24;Bluffton;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 1;at Manchester;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 8;Earlham;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 22;at Rose-Hulman;1:30 p.m.
Oct. 29;at Mt. St. Joseph;1:30 p.m.
Nov. 5;at Anderson;1:30 p.m.
Nov. 12;Hanover;1:30 p.m.
Head coach: Mike Leonard
Last year: 8-3 overall (8-0 in Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference); lost to Ohio Northern 27-22 in NCAA Division III first round
Projected Starters: Offense — SE/LS Ben Fleet, So.; SE Deontez Alexander, Jr.; WB Darrell Crenshaw, Jr.; WB Lee Wroblewski, Jr.; LT Samm Hayes, Sr.; LG Clay Lumpe, Sr.; C Landon Johnson, Jr.; RG Sam Burck, Jr.; RT Darius Dixon, Jr.; QB Chase Burton, Jr.; RB/KR Ty’Ronte Files, Sr.
Defense — DE Solomon Knight, Sr.; DT Zak Prater, Sr.; DT Tyler Reed, So.; DE Devante Ash, Sr.; LB Austin Day, Sr.; LB Nathan Warman, Jr.; LB Jared Wesley, Jr.; CB Luke Clapp, Sr.; CB D.J. Campbell, Sr.; SS Ryan Conner, Jr.; FS Zay Thornton, Sr.
Special teams — K/P Stephen Colligan, Jr.; PR Brad Bonomini, So.
Outlook: With seven seniors starting on defense and a plethora of top players back offensively, the Grizzlies are favored to extend their run atop the HCAC. Franklin College hasn’t lost a league game since 2013. It also hasn’t won a nonconference game during that same span, but the hope is that this group, still motivated by a close first-round NCAA loss to Ohio Northern, can remedy that. Saturday’s opener against Thomas More will be a challenge, but it should give the Grizzlies a chance to find out right away where they stand relative to the best teams in Division III.
A brief look at Franklin College’s other fall sports teams:
The Grizzlies return just two starters from last year’s 17-15 squad: junior hitter Amanda Lelivelt and senior setter Ashley Bazier. Lelivelt was a first-team All-HCAC performer a year ago.
Junior Brooke Harvey is also back after totaling 254 kills last season, second among returning players.
Franklin opens its season tonight with a home match against Spalding.
Former Center Grove standout Austin Storm heads up a group of veterans hoping to help the Grizzlies improve upon last year’s 7-9-1 mark. Franklin was picked to finish fourth in the HCAC’s preseason coaches poll after ending up fifth in 2015.
Finding offense will be a key for a team that managed just 21 goals last fall. Sophomore Blaine Fuhs (4 goals) and junior Cam Mattern (3 goals, 1 assist) are the top returning scorers.
The team opens its season today at 5 p.m. on the road against Wabash.
After splitting the HCAC title last season, the Grizzlies are second in the league’s preseason rankings this year.
After establishing a new program record with 16 wins and reaching the championship match of the HCAC tourney, Franklin is well positioned for more success. Leading the way will be sophomore forward Maddie Fleet (24 goals, seven assists), who was the conference’s Offensive Most Valuable Player and Freshman of the Year last fall.
Other key returnees include junior midfielder Clare Lenart and senior defender Audra Lane.
The Grizzlies open on the road this evening against Millikin.
After finishing second in the HCAC last year, the Grizzlies will be leaning heavily on a group of sophomores that excelled as rookies last year.
Karen Dringenburg was the conference’s 2015 Freshman of the Year after going 15-0 at No. 3 singles. Rachel Rose and Holyn Eldridge were a combined 18-2 in singles play.
Franklin opens the season at 5 p.m. today at Indiana University-East.
Led by junior Sadie Spears and sophomore Meghan Yencer, the Franklin women enter the season picked to finish fourth in the HCAC.
On the men’s side, sophomore Heath Deugan is the top runner coming back for the Grizzlies.
Both teams open up at Anderson today.