CNU reverses last season's weak finish, nears Division III playoffs

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No man, beast or inanimate object could escape Matt Kelchner's crankiness.

"I was feeling lousy all winter, through spring practice," Christopher Newport's football coach said. "I kept thinking about it. I thought about it when we'd go out to workouts, when I was at home, when we were on vacation. … It wears on you, it really does."

"It" was the Captains' 5-5 finish last season, the worst in the program's nine-year history. Now a break-even record hardly is cause for an arsenic martini, but the season's conclusion truly disheartened Kelchner.

A year later, with CNU poised to win the USA South Conference title, Kelchner is quick to remind his players of 2009's disappointments.

"That's been a big point of emphasis," he said as the Captains prepared for Saturday's regular-season finale against visiting Methodist.

CNU (5-4, 5-1) shares first place with North Carolina Wesleyan (6-3, 5-1), but since the Captains defeated Wesleyan last month, a victory Saturday would send them to the NCAA Division III playoffs for the seventh time.

The playoffs were a longshot for CNU entering November last year. Steep odds aside, Kelchner expected maximum effort as the Captains faced two of the league's weaker outfits.

"Last year we squandered two opportunities against Methodist and Maryville back-to-back at the end of the season (and) it has not been forgotten," he said. "The offseason was just nasty because of that. …

"Here's the thing: The Maryville game really disturbed me because they played harder than we did. At Methodist I thought our guys tried to play hard, but we were decimated (by injuries). But still, you just felt lousy. We'd never lost to Maryville, we'd only lost once to Methodist, and they were having a rough year, too."

Non-conference tests against Wesley, Salisbury and Frostburg State to open 2010 didn't figure to brighten Kelchner's mood, and sure enough CNU lost them all. But following a 58-10 demolition at Salisbury that he calls the worst performance ever, Kelchner saw glimmers in the 33-31 setback at Frostburg.

Even a 17-9 home loss to league foe Averett that dumped the Captains to 1-4 didn't faze him.

"Offense, defense, special teams: They just started to improve," Kelchner said. "I could see better blocking, better tackling, better assignments, better taking care of the football. We threw the ball better, we caught the ball better.

"We've gotten better every week. … What more can I ask for? They're practicing hard, they're working hard off the field, they're coming to their meetings, going to the weight room, doing their study hall, doing their tutors. They're doing things right. I'm really pleased right now."

Four consecutive wins do that to a coach, particularly when two, Wesleyan and Maryville, avenge defeats from last season.

Methodist (2-7, 1-5) enters Saturday's game with the same record it carried into the 2009 finale, so don't dare suggest to Kelchner that the result is preordained. But given the stakes and recent form, CNU rates a solid favorite.

Most encouraging to Kelchner: Amid a second straight season of quarterback turmoil, the Captains are thriving with Christian Woelfel-Monsivais under center. Promoted to starter after injuries to Matt Long (knee) and Lyndon Garner (shoulder), Woelfel-Monsivais had his finest game as a collegian last week, throwing for 206 yards and four touchdowns in the 42-10 rout of Maryville.

CNU's revolving door at quarterback reminds Kelchner of William and Mary, where he worked as an assistant coach to Jimmye Laycock for 17 years. Ranked No. 1 in the Championship Subdivision, the Tribe has used four quarterbacks this season.

"Coach Laycock said, 'You'd better recruit a quarterback every single year,'" Kelchner said. "I think it's coming into play for them. … If there's a good quarterback out there, bring him in. If he can't play there, he can play somewhere else."

Case in point: The Captains' best running back, Keith Gaines, is a former quarterback. So are receiver Antonio Epps and special-teams stalwart Steele Driskill.

"I'll be the first to tell you, we don't have any superstars," Kelchner said. "We've just got a bunch of guys. They're just kids who will grind it out, and that's the kind of kids you like."

Kelchner's "guys" are a victory away from making the 32-team national playoffs.

"We might be the 32nd seed," he said. "But you know what? It won't matter, because if this team wins this game, they've overachieved. They've done better than expected."

David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.
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