The Hillsdale College Chargers football team won its sixth consecutive game on Saturday, 28 – 9 against Walsh University. With the win, the team improved to 7 – 1 this season and 6 – 0 in the G-MAC. The win also propelled the team into the national NCAA Division II rankings for the first time, at No. 25.
The national ranking is the first time the Chargers have been ranked since late October in 2012. With three games remaining this season, the Chargers have a chance to win 10 games for the first time since 2009.
The Chargers also come in ranked seventh in their region this week, which has implications for the team’s playoff chances. The top seven teams from each of the four regions make the NCAA Division II playoffs at the end of the regular season. Hillsdale’s last playoff appearance was in 2010.
Head Coach Keith Otterbein said the team’s chemistry has contributed to this year’s success.
“Every year here, we’ve been close. We do some player evaluations and get some feedback from our players and their responses have always been that this is a very close-knit football team,” Otterbein said. “But this particular group I think is especially close. There’s a very unselfish attitude about this group.”
The Chargers entered the season ranked third in their conference. They’ve since defeated the conference’s two favored teams, then-No. 12 Ohio Dominican University on Sept. 15 and the University of Findlay on Oct. 6.
Both wins came on the road, where the Chargers are 4 – 1 this season. Hillsdale’s last two conference games are both at home, where the team is 3 – 0.
The Chargers have been close to cracking the top 25 rankings as the season has progressed, and Otterbein said the team was slightly surprised they didn’t receive the recognition after the win against Ohio Dominican.
Nevertheless, senior quarterback Chance Stewart said the ranking is unrelated to the team’s ultimate goal.
“In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Stewart said. “Our goal is a conference championship and that is what we’re working towards.”
Stewart is one of many seniors on the team who have never been on a Hillsdale team that has entered the national rankings or made the playoffs. Sophomore wide receiver K.J. Maloney said it is rewarding for the team’s veterans to be recognized in their senior seasons.
“Me and a bunch of the other guys were definitely pretty excited about that,” Maloney said. “Some of the older guys, being able to see that ranking, it’s cool to see all of the hard work they’ve put in during the years and the hard work we put in during the offseason starting to pay off.”
Otterbein’s message to the team this year after each win has been “this win makes the next one bigger.” The Chargers play Kentucky Wesleyan College at home on Saturday.
“This win would make the next one huge,” Otterbein said.”
The team’s final conference game of the season is the following week, against Tiffin University. Hillsdale and Tiffin are the G-MAC’s two undefeated teams against conference opponents, meaning the matchup could decide the conference championship.
While the team has used a combination of an explosive offense and stalwart defense to beat opponents this season, Stewart says the Chargers have yet to play their best football.
“We’re really starting to hit a stride at the right time. We won some games early on that some people might say we lucked into,” Stewart said. “Right now, our team is clicking. This weekend is a great step going forward. If we start getting hot at the right time, we’re a dangerous team.”
Otterbein said the team has been focused on the week to week process instead of looking ahead to what could come.
“Hopefully we can concentrate on the task at hand and focus, and this is the kind of team that’s not going to look ahead,” Otterbein said. “They’re going to put together the game plan and play hard and get a win.”
Hillsdale’s next opportunity is this Saturday. The Chargers defeated Kentucky Wesleyan last season, 56 – 0. Their final two opponents, Tiffin and the University of Indianapolis, are both nationally ranked. But now, so are the Chargers.