SIOUX CITY – Six years later, nobody on the current Morningside College football team knows much about the Mustangs’ frustrating day in a rickety old stadium where East High of Des Moines plays its home games.
Football teams are never defined by one particular player, but there was little doubt about the individual the 2013 Morningside squad could least afford to be without.
Junior quarterback Ryan Kasdorf was about as close as they come to indispensable for a team intent on erasing the bitter memory of an overtime loss in the 2012 NAIA championship game in Rome, Ga.
I was there for that heartbreaking setback and I was also in Des Moines a year later to see a national semifinal in which Morningside was forced to trot out Kasdorf’s seldom used understudy, Derrick Dison.
Facing an undefeated Grand View team fortified by one of the nation’s stingiest defenses, it turned into just about the only downright dismal day coach Steve Ryan’s remarkable Morningside program has experienced in quite some time.
With a 35-0 victory, Grand View took its next to last step toward a perfect national championship season under coach Mike Woodley, a former star defensive back at Waterloo East and the University of Northern Iowa.
A tiny press box filled with overzealous volunteers whooped it up in a most unprofessional manner, clearly unaware their team wasn’t seeing the offensive machine Morningside had become and has continued to be on an annual basis. Although the Vikings have been back to the playoffs six more years in a row, they haven’t had another encounter with the Mustangs, whose current streak of 16 consecutive playoff appearances is far and away the longest in NAIA football history.
Even though it’s of no consequence to his 2019 team, I suspect some memories will be stirring for Ryan on Saturday at noon when Morningside hosts Grand View in an all-Iowa national semifinal at Olsen Stadium. Top-ranked Morningside enters the fray with a 12-0 record and a 27-game winning streak dating back to a 43-36 semifinal loss two years ago in Fort Wayne, Ind., to St. Francis.
Fourth-ranked Grand View sports a 13-0 mark after winning another Heart of America Athletic Conference title.
Woodley, who launched the program in 2008 after serving on the staff at Iowa State, is now the head coach at Mount Marty, starting the Lancers football program just like he was the first head coach at Grand View. His son, Joe, a former ISU linebacker out of West Des Moines Valley, is in his first season at the helm after 11 years as an assistant.
In general terms, this is a matchup similar schematically to 2013 with Grand View sending another impressive defense against another formidable Morningside offense.
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Morningside leads the nation in points per game (56.2) and total yards per game (579.9), both improvements over the 2013 numbers that included Kasdorf, of course, for the first 12 games. That team ranked second in scoring average (45.5) and third in total offense per game (551.2).
Grand View, which has edged Concordia (Mich.) and College of Idaho 31-30 and 14-6, respectively, in its first two playoff games, is second nationally in average scoring defense (10.3) and fewest yards allowed (223.5 a game). The Vikings were also second in both categories six years ago when rivals averaged 15.4 points and 273.4 yards.
One big difference is that Morningside’s explosive offense is complemented by an excellent defense that sits third, directly behind Grand View, in the two major departments. Opponents have managed just 10.7 points and 246.5 yards a contest.
The Mustangs won the national championship last year in a 35-28 thriller over Benedictine (Kan.). That was the last of five consecutive NAIA title games hosted by Daytona Beach, Fla.
This Saturday’s winner will travel to Grambling, La., near Ruston, where Grambling State will host the finals Dec. 7 at Eddie G. Robinson Stadium.
The other finalist will be determined Saturday in Indianapolis, where No. 2 Marian (11-0) hosts Lindsey Wilson of Kentucky (12-0). A Marian victory could set up a rematch from the 2012 championship game.
Morningside, by the way, is now 25-14 in its 16 straight playoff trips. The Mustangs have gone 42-0 the last five seasons in the Great Plains Athletic Conference. They are 75-3 in GPAC action over the nine years since the University of Sioux Falls moved to NCAA Division II and 88-5 in regular-season contests during that span.
Grand View, just a sixth-year program when it reeled in its 2013 national crown, has reached the postseason party eight times, all in a nine-year stretch interrupted only by a non-playoff campaign in 2012.
In the post-Sioux Falls era, Ryan’s teams have won at least a share of the conference championship all nine seasons, claiming the honors outright eight times while tying for the title with Northwestern in 2014. That 2014 team, would have reigned alone, as well, if not for a shocking 49-48 loss to Doane in a regular-season finale. It was a team on which Brandon Wegher rushed for an NAIA-record 2,610 yards and fellow senior Kasdorf was honored as the national player of the year.
I’ll never forget thinking Ryan would be hard-pressed to ever come up with an offensive package the likes of what he had with Wegher and Kasdorf, a former Gatorade Player of the Year in California, at the forefront.
Next thing you knew Morningside was headed for four years that featured ex-Heelan stars Trent Solsma and Connor Niles or both, leaving me to think that dynamic duo would be a near-impossible act to follow.
Let’s see. After plugging in a new quarterback and broadening the roles of Niles’ top two receiving alternatives, this team has Ryan in the national semifinals for the seventh time in eight years.
Quite a feat.