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National Champs: North Central’s Football program rise to national prominence has been a cumulative effort

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Naperville will always be in Broc Rutter’s heart.

A semester at Indiana State after a two-year tenure as Neuqua Valley High School’s starting quarterback showed him why.

“It just wasn’t fitting (with the Sycamores),” Rutter said. “It wasn’t a fit. … I had talked to so many people who had played (at North Central College), so many guys that I trusted and they had nothing but outstanding experiences here. They loved it. And I love the city of Naperville.”

North Central Quarterback Broc Rutter drops back for a pass against Delaware Valley on December 7.

His decision in 2016 to come home and reboot his career with the Division III power residing down the road was easy.

“All my friends from high school who were here, playing here, just had nothing but great things to say about the program, the team, the atmosphere,” he said.

Sometimes you need to go away to find yourself – even for a short time.

And what North Central found in Rutter was a leader more than capable of running the show.

“Broc wasn’t afraid of the competition that was going to exist here,” Cardinals’ coach Jeff Thorne said. “And that defines him. He’s a competitor through and through and he hates losing. He’ll do anything he can to give himself every opportunity to win.”

Rutter ended his career as the D-III all-time leader in passing yards (14,258) while establishing new program career marks in completions (1,016) and touchdown passes (145).

On the way to winning the 2019 Gagliardi Trophy, the Division III equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, he received the rightful conclusion to a decorated career.

The North Central College football team hoists the National Championship Trophy in front of Cardinal fans at Championship Plaza, upon their return from the Stagg Bowl on December 21, 2019.

A Cumulative Effort

The program’s first national title – courtesy of a 41-14 Stagg Bowl win over Wisconsin-Whitewater last month (Dec. 20, 2019) – signified the end to a multi-year process.

Since John Thorne took the reins of the North Central program prior to the 2002 season, sustained success has been the norm.

Of the program’s 14 College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin championships, 11 of them have come since 2006.

Jeff Thorne inherited a program on solid footing from his father in 2015 and the credit is split numerous ways.
“I hesitate to say it’s the family business; it’s the family business, but I don’t want to minimize the impact that so many other people have had in this program,” he said.

From the Spencer family (Wes, Rick, Brad and Tyke) to former president Harold Wilde to current president Troy Hammond and AD Jim Miller, it’s been a cumulative effort.

North Central College has been the Spencer family business since Wes’ graduation in 1943 and Rick’s work in the school’s admissions office/financial aid office in 1981. (Today Rick is VP for Institutional Advancement, a position he has held since 1992.)

Two of Wes’ grandsons – Brad and Tyke – played for the Cardinals and Brad has been on the coaching staff since 2004.

“My brother and I have been around the program our entire life,” Brad Spencer said. “My dad started working at North Central in 1981 – a month before I was born. We’ve grown up around it and we’ve seen many years of the lows. So to be a player during the (John Thorne) transition, a coach during the (Jeff Thorne) transition – to see where we’re at now, it’s really unbelievable.”

Six years after first making the trek to face D-III powerhouse Mount Union in 2013, the Cardinals’ November visit to Alliance, Ohio, provided a seismic opportunity.

Their 59-52 second-round victory sent the Purple Raiders home prior to the national semifinals for the first time since 1994.

“That’s a program-changing game,” Rutter said. “That’s Mount Union. They win all these national championships and we wanted to see how we matched up against them. And going into that game, we were confident. … We just wanted to go out there and prove to the country who we are and who we thought we were.”

Brad Spencer, promoted to offensive coordinator and assistant head coach in 2015, knew things could be different early in the second half – despite a 38-28 deficit.

“The second score of that half (a three-yard Ethan Greenfield TD run) was kind of a defining moment because we didn’t get down, we didn’t panic,” Spencer said. “In my opinion the whole game was a defining moment because there was never in that game any sort of panic. We never got too high, we never got too low.”

Junior wide receiver Andrew Kamienski and Greenfield, a sophomore running back, provided two capable running mates for an offense that averaged 51.8 points.

Kamienski led all of Division III with 133 receptions while becoming the second player to top 2,000 receiving yards in a season in D-III history (2,016).

“They set the right example,” Kamienski said of the coaching staff. “We follow up what they do. They’ve been there before. We’re playing for them because they’re all alums, except for Coach Thorne. He’s the only one who didn’t go to North Central. So playing for a whole coaching staff that has been here and has done what we’ve done – it just means the world.”

After three consecutive second-round exits in the D-III playoffs, the Cardinals (14-1) took lessons stemming from their Oct. 5 loss to Wheaton College to heart.

An 11-game winning streak followed, highlighted by postseason victories over two programs – Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater – with a combined 19 national titles.

“We could’ve either stuck together or just grew apart (after the Wheaton loss),” Kamienski said. “But we all decided, ‘let’s just buy in and let’s make a run. We’re playing with a playoff mentality from here on out and let’s just go do our thing and play our game.’ … And then it came together.”

Seventeen starters will return for North Central in 2020, with AP D-III All-Americans Kamienski and Greenfield topping that list.

Kamienski has already established new North Central career records in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns.

Now armed with the program’s first national title and an enhanced national reputation, the standard won’t change.

“I think beating Mount Union legitimized everything we’ve been talking about as a coaching staff with our guys, in terms of we can beat anybody if you go and do us,” Thorne said. “If we’re us and we go and play our game, we can beat anybody in the country and then it happened. And then that just takes you to a different level of confidence and belief.”

Cross-country along with track and field – spurred on by Al Carius and Frank Grammarosso, respectively – have continued to mark the times at North Central.

Spencer noted the first voicemail he received after the victory in the Stagg Bowl – Carius’ – as a demonstration of the tight knit family atmosphere.

“It’s a generational dream for the Thornes and even for the Spencers, too, honestly,” Spencer said. “It’s great to see its fullness displayed.”

North Central College President Dr. Troy Hammond Discusses North Central College’s 40th National Title

Q: What does the honor and exposure (of winning the Division III National Championship) mean to the football program and other sports programs in general?

A: The football team’s national championship is the College’s 40th national title overall, which puts North Central in elite company across all divisions of NCAA athletics. Playing in and winning our first Stagg Bowl was a wonderful opportunity to highlight the excellence and character of North Central’s student-athletes on the national stage. I could not have been prouder of the way our players and coaches represented the College, not just by winning, but doing so with a lot of class and integrity.

Q: What does the Division III Championship mean to North Central College overall?

A: One of the most rewarding things for me was seeing how the success of the football team brought the North Central College family together—from current students, to alums, to faculty and staff, to the broader Naperville and Chicago communities. The Cardinals were the talk of the town. The football team’s national championship is just one example of the many ways in which North Central College prepares students to exceed their personal best—in the classroom, on the playing field and throughout their lives.

Football Team Returns Home to Fans at Championship Plaza December 21, 2019

Blake Baumgartner
Blake Baumgartner
Raised in Naperville, Blake Baumgartner is a 2001 Naperville Central alumnus and a 2005 graduate of Michigan State's School of Journalism. Since March 2010, he has covered football, boys' basketball and baseball for both The Naperville Sun and Positively Naperville. Follow him on Twitter @BFBaumgartner.

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