Franklin College football coach Mike Leonard says he won’t discuss “the ‘P’ word” with his team until a playoff spot is officially secured.
The Grizzlies need to win one of their final two regular-season games to lock up a place in the NCAA Division III Tournament — and while the official talking points center around going 1-0 every week, players have at least started to glance ahead a bit.
For the senior class, it’s even more tempting to do so, because for all of the success they’ve enjoyed over their four years — a 30-10 overall record, a 29-1 mark in conference play and a pair of NCAA playoff appearances — this group has yet to win a postseason game.
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The Grizzlies aren’t brushing off their matchups the next two weeks with Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference rivals Anderson and Hanover, but they’re also eager to venture into that uncharted territory.
“We obviously want to win conference; we want to win as many games as possible,” said senior offensive lineman Samm Hayes, a Center Grove graduate. “But it’s always looking further. We want to win playoff games, we want to go deep, we want to make a run — and ultimately, the goal is to win a national championship.”
From the time they arrived on campus, the current seniors have felt as though they had the ability to accomplish something special together. Hayes recalls the group excelling in intrasquad scrimmages as freshmen and gaining confidence from that.
The competitive fire continues to burn each day in practice when the players square off with each other. Senior quarterback Chase Burton has been one of the most prolific Division III passers in the country the past three seasons, and the Franklin defense uses its reps against the explosive Grizzlies offense as a measuring stick.
“I’m making myself better just going against (Burton),” senior defensive back Ryan Conner said, “but I’ve got to make him better.”
It seems to have worked — Burton ranks second nationally in passing yardage and fourth in both total offense and touchdown passes.
Pure talent isn’t all that the Grizzlies possess, though. Leonard said he’s been most pleased by how his seniors have carried themselves away from the field, both as solid citizens and as team leaders.
“There’s a lot of leadership that I see that I actually don’t see, that I know is behind the scenes,” Leonard said. “It’s not right out there on the field, but the locker room leadership is good, back at the dorms, back off campus. Our guys have been accountable to one another.”
As a result, they’re on the cusp of a fourth HCAC title, three of those outright, and a third NCAA trip. The Franklin seniors have big plans for their grand finale … but they know that all begins with a single victory against Anderson on Saturday.
“We have to win conference to be able to get to the tournament,” Conner said. “So in our heads, yeah, we can see ourselves making a great run, making it to that national championship, but really, we’re 1-0 each week to get the opportunity first.”