In what turned out to be a season of milestone achievements, the football team never talked about winning the national championship in 2010.
This year, it’s on the table.
The Cardinals believed their season-ending loss to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III Playoffs was the national championship — and could have gone either way, if not for a play here and a play there.
The postgame shock, a word the Cardinals use to describe the aftermath, has them thinking bigger and better, and now they’re vocalizing it.
“We could have been the national champs last year,” senior tight end Kyle Fiedorowicz said. “This year our team is just as good, probably better. We got a real good shot at doing better than what we did last year.
“There’s nowhere else to go. There’s nothing left but to win a national championship.”
The Cardinals enter Saturday’s season opener at the University of Redlands’ Ted Runner Stadium (Calif.) ranked fourth nationally by D3football.com. The Cardinals also cracked the top 25 in preseason polls by USA Today, The Sporting News and Lindy’s Sports.
Redlands will give the Cardinals a test right off the bat. After traveling farther for a game than any team in program history, the Cardinals will have to shake off the jet lag and prepare for the 18th and 22nd nationally ranked team by Lindy’s Sports and The Sporting News, respectively. The Bulldogs received votes for the D3football.com poll but remained outside the top 25.
And the schedule won’t ease after that, not with each College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin team gunning for the Cardinals in addition to nonconference Bethel University (Tenn.) and Olivet College.
Fiedorowicz said there’s pressure to run the table again, matching last year’s perfect regular-season record. The Cardinals finished 12-1 overall (7-0 in the CCIW), a school record for total wins, en route to advancing past the second round of the playoffs for the first time in school history.
“We know every team is after us, because we’re like the team to beat,” Fiedorowicz said.
Coach John Thorne’s Cardinals return seven starters on each side of the ball this season, after setting school single-season records for rushing offense (2,889), total offense (5,457), quarterback sacks (45), fewest average points allowed (9.2 points per game), fewest average rushing yards allowed (68.1 yards per game), and fewest total offensive yards allowed (225.8 yards per game).
The Cardinals' offense ranked 19th nationally in scoring offense and 24th in rushing offense last season. The team's top two running backs, Jordan Tassio and Nick Kukuc, return after combining for more than 1,700 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.
Brad Crackel, who made six starts last season, begins 2011 as 's No. 1 quarterback and has a preseason All-American tight end at his disposal in Fiedorowicz, along with returning starters Joe Antonacci and Manny Juarez at wide receiver. Some transfer receivers are gaining the attention of their new teammates, as well.
The Cardinals' defense, which ranked second in scoring defense and third in total defense a year ago, returns its entire front line in defensive tackle Peter Bulandr and ends Valente Garza and Willie Hayes. Garza led the CCIW in quarterback sacks (11.5) last season with Hayes close behind (10.5).
Preseason All-American Josh McLeod returns at free safety after tying 's single-season record for interceptions (eight) in 2010. Other returning starters are cornerback Stewart Charles and linebackers Joey Michals and Scott Skuteris.
“This year we have a whole new hunger,” McLeod said, “because we know how close we were last year.”