Ranking the plays that made Central’s football November to remember

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Hunter Robinson (2) catches and begins to fall into the end zone for Central's winning two-point conversion. (photo by Steve Woodhouse)

 PELLA—Amidst the euphoric stream of chatter following Central College’s record-breaking 24-point second-half comeback in a 38-37 overtime NCAA Division III football playoff win over the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Nov. 23, coach Jeff McMartin made a startling pronouncement.

            “It’s undoubtedly one of the best victories we’ve had in my 16 years here and if you look at the history of this program it has to rank with the top wins,” he said.

            Whoa. Those who know McMartin know how much he reveres the tradition of a Central program that is America’s fourth-winningest at any level of college football over the past 50 years. He treads hyper-cautiously when venturing into any comparisons with achievements that transpired during the 36-year career of the late coach Ron Schipper, recently tabbed as one of the top 150 college football coaches in 150 years by ESPN. And he steadfastly resists big-picture observations, viewing them as an unwelcome distraction from the next week’s game.

            But McMartin’s statement amplifies the magnitude of Central’s remarkable late-season run. Enduring a second-half meltdown that saw a 49-14 second-half lead vanish against Wartburg College Nov. 2, only to come back for a 57-56 overtime victory on a 2-point conversion. Capturing a share of the program’s 31st conference title, and first in 10 years, with a road win at Coe College the following week. And then, unbelievably, roaring to life against Wisconsin-Oshkosh after trailing 31-7 at halftime.

            Even for a championship-drenched program, that’s a dramatic month. But where does it rank and, specifically, what moments in Dutch football history were the most magical? What is the most get-out-of-your-seat, did-you-see-that, I-can’t-believe-it play that Central fans bring up most?

            The Kuyper Comeback–There is no answer, of course but several November plays are part of the Central fans’ debate. And the conversation likely starts Nov. 23 with the Kuyper Comeback. With 28 seconds remaining in regulation at Schipper Stadium in Central’s A.N. Kuyper Athletics Complex, it was Dutch ball on the Wisconsin-Oshkosh 34-yard line, trailing 31-24 in the first-round playoff game at Pella. Quarterback Blaine Hawkins (junior, Ankeny) looked to his right, scrambled to his left, narrowly avoiding a sack, then dropped a picture-perfect pass over two defenders to hit Erik Knaack (junior, Reinbeck, Gladbrook-Reinbeck HS) in stride in the corner of the end zone. There were just 15 seconds left by the end of the play and Central went on to win in overtime.

            VIDEO: https://twitter.com/CentralDutch/status/1198385168056291330?s=20

            Offensive line coach Eric Jones played on powerhouse Central teams in the mid-80s. He graduated in 1987, has coached with the Dutch for 22 season and compared it to the numerous thrilling plays he’s witnessed.

            “I’d say it’s in the top three,” Jones said. He ranks Hawkins’ throw highly not only on the drama scale, but on degree of difficulty. 

            “We ran the same play in the first half and got sacked,” he recalled. “(This time) he went to his left and had to throw against his body. (Receivers coach Nolan Emendorfer) yelled out, ‘Throw it to Knaack!.’ He saw the play developing. I’m thinking there’s no way it’s going to happen, and it did.”

            Few have witnessed as many Central games as 1964 grad Jim Danks, a star offensive center, member of Schipper’s first squad and assistant coach from 1966-73. Now retired, he’s often at team practices and is a fixture at Central games, typically monitoring the team gate near the end zone. Danks had just finished watching the YouTube video of the play again on a recent morning when asked how it compares.

            “I had a pretty prominent seat,” he said. “It ranks right up there. It was one of the most impressive plays I’ve seen. Knaack’s energy to get himself open and give Blaine the opportunity to get the ball to him, all on top of the fact that everyone on both sidelines knows that Knaack’s the one that’s going to get the football. It’s not like it was a secret.

            “Those two guys exude confidence in each other when they get down inside the 20. The fact that there were two defenders right there makes it even more impressive.”

            Retired athletics director Al Dorenkamp, captain of Central’s 1974 national championship team, was also on field level with some other former Dutch players, including retired University of Iowa and Kansas State University assistant Del Miller ’72, former Simpson College coach Alex Glann ’69 and Al Paris ‘77. As the seconds ticked away, they were all but conceding a Wisconsin-Oshkosh victory.

            “And all of a sudden that happened,” Dorenkamp said. “In terms of dramatic, that ranks way up there.”

            Likely the most highly respected Central fan remains 94-year-old President Emeritus Kenneth J. Weller, who was intently watching the video stream from a local senior residential community. Central’s president from 1969-90, Weller was an assistant coach at Hope College (Mich.) in the early 1950s when Schipper played quarterback there. His seasoned eyes saw more than Hawkins and Knaack.

            “Hawkins’ performance in every game was significantly dependent on the pass protection, which was very good,” Weller said. “And it was of a nature that when it broke down, it broke down in ways that he was still able to make a play.”

            Multiple magic moments in 2019–But in an all-time ranking, it could be argued that the Hawkins-Knaack touchdown was not even the most dramatic play of the season, or even that game. The Wisconsin-Oshkosh game could have been lost later were it not for the extended fingertips of strong safety Jordy Borman (senior, Eagan, Minn.). He stretched out just enough to deflect a Wisconsin-Oshkosh 2-point conversion pass in overtime that would have given the Titans the win.

            “Jordy made a special play,” McMartin said.

            VIDEO: https://twitter.com/CentralDutch/status/1198449962759139328?s=20

            Dorenkamp and his colleagues had hustled to the other end of the field for the overtime.

            “We old guys can’t jump very high anymore but we had our heads in the air after that play,” Dorenkamp said.

            And Central was on the other end of a game-deciding overtime 2-point attempt in the 57-56 win over Wartburg. Central split offensive linemen out wide to both sides of the field and Hawkins darted a low pass to receiver Hunter Robinson (senior, Lisbon) who squirmed his way into the end zone.

            VIDEO: https://twitter.com/CentralDutch/status/1193337674817560576?s=20

            Miracle in the Mud still number one?–Yet the 2000 play that still tops the list for jaw-dropping, improbable drama in the minds of many Central fans is now known as the Miracle in the Mud. Playing on a slick, mud-covered field on a rainy late-November afternoon at Linfield College (Ore.) in an NCAA Division III second-round playoff game. Trailing 17-14 in overtime, Central stalled on its possession and was forced to try a 38-yard field goal. But kicker Tim O’Neil slipped and the kicked skidded into the backside of the Dutch offensive line.

            “I thought the game was over,” Linfield coach Jay Locey told a reporter.

            “I turned away in disgust,” confessed Dutch coach Rich Kacmarynksi.

            But as fans and players streamed onto the field to celebrate an apparent Linfield victory, center Reid Evans alertly recovered the kick and in the ensuing scrum flipped the ball to fullback Joe Ritzert, who dodged fans en route to the end zone and a 20-17 victory. The play was featured on ESPN and was SI.com’s Video of the Day.

            VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBpifqsHD14

                Not surprisingly, the play is not viewed as favorably by Wildcat fans, who tagged it the Mishap in the Mud. And in a telling postscript, Linfield installed artificial turf a year later.

            Sweet home, Alabama–Dorenkamp was in uniform for three thrilling, game-deciding plays in the 1974 title run and in the most significant moment, the all-America linebacker captained the Central defense in a last-minute goal-line stand against heavily favored Ithaca College (N.Y.) at the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Phenix City, Ala. Central had tamed Ithaca’s explosive offense, which was averaging 44 points a game, and led 10-6 in closing minutes. But the Bombers drove to the Central 6-yard line and faced 4th-and-1.

            “I told myself, ‘This is it,’” defensive lineman Mike Street said. “’This is what we’ve been working for all year. We’ve come too far to blow it now.’”

            The Dutch defense converged to get the memorable stop, then ran out the final seconds, using an intentional safety to close a 10-8 title win.

            VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkzOFBqTilc

            Central had earned its trip to Alabama the previous week with another upset victory, at Evansville University (Ind.) in the semifinals. Central had just 127 yards of offense but led 17-10 before Evansville scored with 1:32 remaining to apparently force overtime. But the stubborn Street turned to Schipper and said he would block the extra point. He did. The Dutch were 17-16 winners.

            “He knew that offensive tackle because he’d studied him in the films and he went in scot free and blocked it,” Schipper said.

            “People were stunned,” Weller recalled. “They were expecting an overtime and suddenly the game was over.”

            Fans sensed something special about that 1974 team in the season’s second game. Ferris State (Mich.) scored with 24 seconds left for a 17-15 lead when Central quarterback Gary Cutler launched a desperation 77-yard reverse pass to record-setting receiver Randy Busscher, who somehow outraced a speedy Ferris State defensive back to the end zone.

            “Everybody knew what play we were going to run,” Schipper recalled later. “The pro scouts always told us that Busscher wasn’t fast, but all I know is that Ferris State had a Michigan state sprint champion at free safety and he couldn’t catch Busscher on that play.”

            Another big-play receiver was Rick Perry, who authored some memorable moments in 1988. Central had lost its top two quarterbacks to injury in the final week of the regular season, and had to journey far north to take on Concordia-Moorhead (Minn.) in the opening round of the playoffs. After an overnight snow, with temperatures hovering near zero, the offense sputtered, but Perry’s punt return for a touchdown was enough for a 7-0 win. Trailing at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater the following week, the Dutch turned to 6-foot-4 tight end Lance Kooiker, a high school quarterback, to take over under center and the Dutch rallied for a  16-13 win on a last-minute field goal by Rob Phipps. That set up a playoff semifinal with perennial power Augustana College (Ill.), which had defeated the Dutch in the 1984 Stagg Bowl and again in the 1985 national semifinals. This time, however, it was on a dry field in Pella and the teams headed into a second overtime tied 17-17. Central got the ball first and Kooiker hit Perry streaking down the sideline for a 25-yard TD and the Dutch defense held, sending them back to the Stagg Bowl, 23-17.

            VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bh8uU6s9S2Y

            There are, of course, countless other plays that stand out. A game-clinching Brian Thomas interception in the back of the end zone to stifle what looked to be a decisive scoring drive in a 33-32 1990 win over the University of St. Thomas (Minn.) in a second-round playoff contest. A 90-plus yard dash on an off-tackle pay by Dick Dykstra that set up the go-ahead score in a 26-14 upset at Iowa Conference power Luther College in 1962, Schipper’s second season, establishing Central’s arrival as a league force. Quarterback Tim Connell racing the Augustana defense to the pylon on an overtime 2-point conversion for a 25-24 season-opening victory in 2005. A similar play by quarterback Kohle Helle who dove to end a 50-49 overtime season opener in 2016 at Whitworth University (Wash.).

            VIDEO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mUwUWILnrk&list=PLwrZ3sAACLs-xjyHHAH9Y7s6I41S5h_Id&index=53

            “They’re all dramatic for different reasons,” Weller said.

            A collection of other memorable Central athletics moments can be accessed under the Magic Moments tab on the Dutch athletics website:

https://athletics.central.edu/sports/2016/12/2/magic-dutch-moments.aspx

            The football ranking is unsettled but Weller said there’s no debate that Central’s 10-2 campaign in 2019 was a special one and he credits McMartin and his staff.

            “We had a very good team that played up to its ability,” he said. “And a very good quarterback.”

            Dorenkamp said even as a spectator, he’s happy he was along for the ride.

            “I know how hard Coach Mac and that coaching staff work and I know what kind of young men they’re coaching,” Dorenkamp said. “You can have all the pros and big-time college games. Seeing these guys succeed is what makes football enjoyable for me.”

            When the 1974 team held its 45th reunion on campus in September, McMartin asked Dorenkamp to speak to the current team.

            “I told them if you play hard and play smart for a whole game, you’re in the game,” he said. “And if you’re in the game, one play can make a huge difference.”

            When 2019 team members gather years from now, they’ll recall that one play did.