Students arriving on campus in fall 2009 felt the buzz around the Cardinal football and men’s cross country teams, both ranked among the top programs in Division III preseason sports polls.
In football, the Cardinals are expected to compete for a fourth consecutive conference title in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) and were ranked third in the nation by Lindy’s Sports Preseason Division III Top 25 Poll, behind defending Division III 2008 champion Mount Union College (Ohio) and runner-up the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
In cross country, the team finished second at the 2008 National Championships and enters the 2009 season as the top-ranked team in the nation, according to the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association national preseason poll released in August. The Cardinals are returning six of seven varsity runners from last season, including All-Americans Michael Spain and Nathaniel Hird.
In the cross country poll, North Central garnered 278 points and six of the eight first-place votes. The Cardinals will again be overwhelming favorites within the CCIW, looking to stake claim to a 36th straight conference crown.
The good news is that the national sports stage is available to first-year athletes, who can make an impact immediately as varsity athletes or spend a year learning from seasoned veterans who are approaching graduation.
“These programs have benefited from the contributions of first-year athletes who come to campus ready for collegiate competition,” says Jim Miller, athletic director.
Take Dominic Sulo, who this year could achieve his fourth 1,000-yard season as a Cardinal running back. He and his brother, defensive back Derek Sulo, have been starters since the pair arrived from Mount Carmel High School in Chicago. Matt Wenger, who turned down a wrestling scholarship to Northern Illinois University so he could play football at North Central, started in eight games as a first-year player and was the CCIW Defensive Player in 2008.
For the 2009 squad, coaches anticipate first-year starters on the offensive and defensive lines.
Other first-year players are part of a reserve squad, which plays a full nine-game schedule—one of just a few among Division III programs. This squad readies key players to step in to replace varsity positions at any time during the season.
In cross country, top runner Michael Spain started contributing as a first-year athlete, cracking the competitive top seven. He earned All-America honors in 2008
along with Nathaniel Hird and paced the Cardinals to a second-place finish at the National Championships.
First-year runners can be part of a second squad that splits off and competes in meets at different locations.
The key to success for athletes in any sport is a year-round commitment to training, adds Miller. “The football team worked extensively during the off-season to build strength as a way to avoid injuries, and there were plenty of cross country team members who ran together all summer.”