BY JOHN GROCHOWSKI
Special to the Sun-Times
Five games into a season of high hopes, St. Xavier’s football team found itself in an urgent situation. The Cougars had lost close games to Robert Morris and Grand View, and couldn’t afford another loss.
Since then, St. Xavier (7-2, 3-1 MSFA Midwest) has won four in a row, the latest being a 45-23 win over Trinity International on Saturday. The Cougars have risen to No. 6 in the NAIA coaches’ poll, and are in the driver’s seat for a playoff bid if they can continue their winning ways Saturday at home against Olivet Nazarene.
What’s made the difference?
“The key really has been wanting to get back to the NAIA playoffs,” coach Mike Feminis said. “That’s what motivated us. We missed last year, and that was the first time since 2008. We really didn’t want to miss again.”
A victory this week would give the Cougars an at-large berth and a home game in the first round of the playoffs. Should they rise to No. 4 in next week’s poll, the Cougars would be in line for a potential home game in the quarterfinals, too. No. 3 Grand View (8-1, 5-0) has clinched the MSFA Midwest’s automatic berth, but the Cougars showed they can play with the Vikings during a 41-37 road loss. St. Xavier drove inside the 5 on the way to a potential winning touchdown, but lost a fumble with 31 seconds to play.
Among the keys have been receiver-kick returner Nick DeBenedetti and defensive end Greg Hayward, who both will be NAIA All-America nominees. DeBenedetti was named MSFA special teams player of the week after returning three kickoffs for 109 yards and two punts for 101, including a 51-yard touchdown. Hayward leads St. Xavier with 65 tackles, including 10 sacks.
“Nick has been fantastic, and he’s been playing with a broken finger for a couple of years, really,” Feminis said. “Greg is a really quiet guy that leads with his actions. He’s got a motor that never stops and the energy he brings on every play is contagious.”
With a 13-7 victory over Illinois Wesleyan, Wheaton (9-0, 6-0) clinched at least a share of the CCIW football championship and also secured the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs. Johnny Peltz completed 22 of 34 passes for 228 yards and a touchdown, and also led the Thunder with 69 yards rushing.
The Thunder, ranked No. 9 at D3Football.com, can earn a CCIW outright title with a victory Saturday at Carthage.
Wheaton also has scored CCIW championships in men’s and women’s soccer. In CCIW tournament championship matches, the men’s team (18-3-2) topped Elmhurst 5-2 and the women (18-1-2) beat Illinois Wesleyan 1-0.
Both will open at home in the NCAA Division III tournaments. The Thunder men, No. 10 at D3Soccer.com, will host a second-round game Saturday against the winner of a first-rounder between Wisconsin-Whitewater and Carroll. The No. 5 women open Friday morning against Hope.