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The Lakeland College football team won the Northern Athletics Conference championship Saturday, and along with it the NAC's automatic berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
Lakeland (6-4, 6-1 NAC) shutout Aurora on Saturday, 28-0, and Benedictine beat Concordia University Chicago, 15-14, to give the Muskies the outright NAC title and the league's automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs.
Lakeland and CUC were tied atop the NAC standings headed into the final game, and CUC had the tiebreaker over Lakeland because the Cougars beat the Muskies earlier this year.
The 32-team playoff field will be announced on Sunday at approximately 2 p.m. local time on ESPNews. The Muskies, winners of four straight, will have a first-round playoff game on Saturday, Nov. 21.
It is the second trip to the playoffs for Lakeland, the first coming in 2005 when the Muskies lost a first-round game at Augustana (Ill).
Lakeland kicked off 30 minutes before CUC on Saturday. After the Muskies' win, the internet audio from the CUC game was played over the public address system as Lakeland players, their families and friends gathered on the field to listen to the end of the CUC-Benedictine game. A wild celebration ensued when Lakeland knew it had clinched the conference title and playoff berth.
"It was the greatest feeling I've ever had in my sports career," said senior wide receiver Jacob Heinemeyer. "I could not stop running around the field. I can't even describe it - it was just a pure feeling of excitement."
"Unbelievable - I don't think it has really set in yet," said senior linebacker Blaine Hornes. "Everybody thought there was no chance that Benedictine would win, but that's why you play the game."
The NAC title is the first for Lakeland, and the fourth conference title for the Muskies in six seasons.
"A lot of people wrote us off going into this season because we lost some great players," Lakeland head coach Kevin Doherty said. "We were resilient throughout the entire year. It means so much to the program and to these kids that we won the conference and we're going to the playoffs. I'm really proud of these kids - they deserve it."
It was a storybook ending for a team that was 0-3 following a tough non-conference schedule.
"The way the season started, a lot of the guys were gloomy," Hornes said. "It shows how we handle adversity. We made some changes, came together and got better each week. If everyone makes sure they are doing everything in their power to get things done, good things will happen. I truly believe the best team in our conference is going to the playoffs."
Lakeland's defense dominated in recording its third shutout of this season. The Muskies had 10 tackles for loss, and sophomore defensive back Tony Faller finished with a team-high seven tackles and two fumble recoveries.
"Our defense played awesome all game and kept us in it," Doherty said. "We had to be a little patient on offense. We made some mistakes and penalties in the first half that set us back a little bit. We regrouped ourselves at halftime and got focused. It was an emotional game, a roller coaster ride. Once we got going, we didn't let up."
Both teams struggled on offense in the first half as neither stretched a drive beyond seven plays in the first quarter. With a scoreless first half looking likely, Faller recovered an Aurora fumble on the Aurora 26 yard line. Lakeland scored the game's first points on the ensuing offensive play on a short screen pass from junior quarterback Jake Dworak to sophomore running back Jeremy Williams.
"That turnover and score before halftime really set the tone for us in the second half," Doherty said. "When we got the ball after holding Aurora to three-and-out to start the second half and our offense scored on our next drive, we didn't look back."
"We were talking before the game and we thought it might take awhile to sustain a drive," said Heinemeyer, who finished with two catches for 70 yards. "We were all jacked up, and we have been a slow starting team. But our defense was there for us, and the offense came on strong in the second half."
After forcing on Aurora punt on its first possession of the second half, Lakeland needed just three plays for its second score of the game. Adam Miller exploded out of a pile for a 36-yard carry that set up a 20-yard touchdown from Dworak to junior wide receiver Roberto Flores two plays later.
Dworak found Flores again on the next possession for a 19-yard score as Lakeland took a 21-0 lead. The drive was set up on a 65-yard pass to Heinemeyer, who tip-toed down the Lakeland sideline to the Aurora 21.
Lakeland outgained Aurora 371 yards to 202 despite running five fewer total plays. Dworak finished 13-20 with 231 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Muskies pounded out 175 rushing yards on 37 carries. Four Muskies picked up at least 37 yards and freshman Justin Laack scored his second touchdown of the season with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.