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.