The Hillsdale Chargers play in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs at 12:05 p.m. on Sat­urday in Kutztown, Penn­syl­vania. (Cal Abbo | Col­legian)

When senior quar­terback Chance Stewart walked off the field on Sat­urday after the Hillsdale Chargers’ loss to the Indi­anapolis Grey­hounds, he won­dered if he would ever play col­le­giate football again. The regular season was over, and although the Chargers fin­ished 9 – 2 and won the G‑MAC, their playoff fate was uncertain.

“That was a rough 24 hours for a lot of people,” Stewart said. 

On Sunday night, the team gathered around a pair of pro­jectors to watch the NCAA release its selec­tions for the Division II playoffs. Hillsdale had qual­ified twice for the playoffs before, in 2009 and 2010. 

At 5 p.m., the 28-team bracket appeared on the screen, and head coach Keith Otterbein used one word to describe the feeling that ensued: “relief.”

The screen read: “5: Hillsdale (9 – 2).” The Chargers were in. 

“Our guys were pretty subdued. They were pretty con­fident we were going to get in. They were excited, maybe more opti­mistic than I was,” Otterbein said. “I’ve been through it before. I’ve had the name not appear in the past. It’s a sat­is­fying feeling to go to the playoffs, because that’s really what you’re shooting for.”

After winning the G‑MAC cham­pi­onship by defeating Tiffin a week earlier, the Chargers woke up Sat­urday in good shape to qualify for the post­season. Losing to Indi­anapolis proved not to be cat­a­strophic, but it did create a degree of ambi­guity to the playoff picture. 

“Seeing your name up there, you’re able to take a deep breath and relax, and get excited for another oppor­tunity,” Stewart said. “We’ve got second life, and here we go.” 

Hillsdale qual­ified as the fifth seed out of seven teams in Super Region I. The team will travel to Kutztown Uni­versity in Kutztown, Penn­syl­vania on Sat­urday for round one to take on the Kutztown Golden Bears, the fourth seed in Super Region I. Hillsdale and Kutztown have never played each other. Kickoff is at 12:05 p.m.

Kutztown is ranked No. 20 nationally, while the Chargers are ranked No. 23. The Golden Bears went 9 – 1 during the regular season. Kutztown is nearly a nine-hour drive from Hillsdale, and just under the threshold of 600 miles that allows teams to fly to its des­ti­nation. The Chargers will take the bus.

“We’re going to have to do the same thing we’ve done for 11 weeks in terms of our prepa­ration and in terms of going on the road,” Otterbein said. “We found out how dif­ficult that was on Sat­urday, and now we’ve gotta do that again.” 

Both of Hillsdale’s losses this season came on the road. In Otterbein’s playoff career at Hillsdale, he’s coached three games, all on the road, and gone 1 – 2. 

While Otterbein has coached teams that have been on the fringe of the playoffs, this is the first time any of the players on the current roster have been on a team that’s had a shot at making the post­season. He didn’t think his team’s lack of post­season expe­rience would be a factor on Sat­urday. 

“It’s really just another game for the players in terms of their prepa­ration and what they’ve gotta worry about,” Otterbein said. “It’s still a 60-minute game with four downs to get a first down and six points to get a touchdown.”

Stewart said the offense’s gameplan on Sat­urday will the the same as it’s been all season. That means getting the ball in the hands of its play­makers — guys like senior wide receiver Trey Brock, junior running back David Graham, and sophomore wide receiver K.J. Maloney.

“Every game, it’s the same mindset, getting David going early, getting Trey and K.J. going early and as often as pos­sible,” Stewart said. “Once we start exploiting one of those matchups, they’re going to have to change a little bit on defense to try to elim­inate that, and then it just opens up the other part of the game even better. We’re going to keep doing our normal thing and just get ready to go.”

This year’s nine wins are already the most by a Hillsdale team since 2010, the year of the program’s last playoff appearance. That team was also 9 – 2 entering the post­season, but lost in the first round. This year’s Chargers will try to be the first to win a playoff game since 2009. 

For the team’s vet­erans, a playoff appearance has been a long process. Senior line­backer Jay Rose, a captain this year and the team’s leading tackler, was a true freshman in 2014. That team went 4 – 7. 

The next year, the Chargers improved by a game and fin­ished 5 – 6. Midway through the season, Stewart took over as the starting quar­terback after trans­ferring from Division I Western Michigan Uni­versity. He quickly found his favorite target in the passing game, then-freshman wide receiver Trey Brock. 

In 2016, the team went 5 – 5. Last season, Hillsdale posted its first winning record since 2012 when it went 7 – 4 in its first year in the G‑MAC. David Graham burst onto the scene as the Chargers’ starting running back in his sophomore season. 

Before the beginning of the 2018 season, Hillsdale’s cap­tains decided on the team’s one-word motto for the season: finish. 

“Looking back on our four years here, we wanted to decide a word that resembled our time here as a senior group,” Stewart said. “The word ‘finish’ just means every play, every rep, every quarter, every game, you find a way to finish that game off and do every­thing in your power to finish it off.”

Stewart is just one of many seniors who Otterbein noted has been playing his best football in his final season at Hillsdale. Stewart led the G‑MAC in total offense this season as a dual-threat quar­terback. His week-by-week focus has never wavered even as the team rose in the national rankings and he climbed in the Hillsdale record books.

“Our first goal was to win the con­ference and we did that. Our second goal was to win in the playoffs,” Stewart said. “This group of guys is very moti­vated to keep going.”

Otterbein lauded his group of vet­erans who have been on less suc­cessful teams at Hillsdale, and said they’ve paved the way for a winning envi­ronment and close team chem­istry. 

“There’s some­thing in that locker room where they really play hard for each other. They don’t want to let their buddy down,” Otterbein said. “We had arguably more talent last year on the field and more expe­rience for sure, and didn’t come up with the big plays. Fine line between winning and losing.”

Senior defensive back Wyatt Bat­dorff, who led the team in tackles in 2016 and 2017, was one of the cap­tains this year that chose the word ‘finish’ for the 2018 team.

“I think the whole team was just sick of being very average. We know we have the talent, and it’s just a matter of fin­ishing and doing our jobs,” Bat­dorff said. “We just got sick of it and decided that this is our year.”

After five seasons of mediocre win-loss records, this year’s Chargers are con­ference cham­pions, nationally ranked, and far from average. Hillsdale teams of pre­vious years didn’t finish games. This year’s team has fin­ished in the moments when it’s mat­tered most, and it’s led to a 9 – 2 record and the promise of more football. 

The Chargers fin­ished their con­ference schedule with an eight-game winning streak, the longest the team has had since 1992. They fin­ished the year with a G‑MAC cham­pi­onship in the team’s second year in the con­ference.

Otterbein said making the playoffs pro­vides the team an oppor­tunity to appre­ciate, if only for a moment, the things already accom­plished. 

“I’m very proud of our guys, and very proud of our staff,” Otterbein said. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears go into an accom­plishment like this.”

But Otterbein and the entire team knows the Chargers aren’t fin­ished. The regular season may be over. But the playoffs are only beginning.