Mike McFeely column: Playoff victory means Winona State belongs

It has been popular sport around these parts -- this space included -- to take shots at the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, the league trying to compete in Division II football with budgets consisting of $8 and a roll of duct tape.

It has been popular sport around these parts -- this space included -- to take shots at the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, the league trying to compete in Division II football with budgets consisting of $8 and a roll of duct tape.

Common theory held that the mighty North Central Conference and Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association were kings of the Midwest Region, full of powerful teams loaded with scholarships and talent.

This theory was cemented the past two years, when NSIC teams Winona State and Minnesota-Duluth made hasty exits after being invited to the postseason.

It was cemented even more in North Dakota State's final game this season, when the Bison -- an NCC team destined to not make the playoffs -- clubbed Concordia-St. Paul -- the NSIC's co-champion -- 58-24 at the Fargodome. The score was 58-10 before Craig Bohl called off the dogs. By that time, the boys from St. Paul had body language indicating they wished they were anywhere on the planet but where they were.

This, predictably, led to wails from some Bison fans that NSIC teams were not playoff-worthy because they obviously could not compete with the unconquerable NCC and invincible MIAA. Those wails intensified in the days following this season's playoff announcement because Winona State -- which lost to Concordia -- not only made the postseason, but was seeded No. 2 in the Midwest and received a home game.


Winona's quick and painful first-round demise at the hands of Emporia State, a member of the indomitable MIAA, were rapidly and smugly predicted in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Including, it must be admitted, by the soul typing these words.

So imagine the surprise when the following score was reported last Saturday afternoon: Winona State 10, Emporia State 3.

While not quite in the neighborhood of David upending Goliath, it was enough to make a person say, "Hmm."

It also should have been enough to make NSIC skeptics say this: "It is apparent Winona State deserves respect. It is obvious the Warriors belong in the playoff field."

Nothing is that easy, of course. There will still be those who hope Winona State gets it comeuppance Saturday when it visits Grand Forks to play the University of North Dakota in the playoff quarterfinals. And there are those who now will try to denigrate the MIAA as a 48-pound weakling.

But that is the equivalent of changing the rules in the middle of the game. By winning a playoff game, the Warriors have answered the question that needed to be answered. The program, and the conference to which it belongs, no longer needs to make apologies for taking a spot in the postseason field.

"That's what we hope," Winona State head coach Tom Sawyer said. "If you look at the MIAA, it had a five-way tie for the conference title and we beat two of those teams (Emporia and Missouri Western). We feel that our program has taken another step in our short life in Division II."

And, by the way, Winona State also beat South Dakota State, a fair to middling NCC team.


Sawyer is still doing it with $8 and a roll of duct tape. When the Warriors played at UND in 2001 in their first playoff appearance, losing 42-28, they had 11 scholarships. While Sawyer's budget has increased since then, the school's tuition has risen, meaning he still has the equivalent of 11 scholarships.

But Sawyer said he believes his program is built on a stronger foundation. The team that played the Sioux two years ago was good offensively, but woefully short on defense. This year's Warriors have nine returning starters on defense and boast the two-time NSIC defensive player of the year in senior linebacker Deric Sieck.

"We have three fifth-year linebackers and Deric is a four-year starter. We have more depth on the defensive line; we were rotating nine guys in to stay fresh," Sawyer said. "I think we are a lot better. We were so young when we played UND a couple of years ago. Those guys are all still here, but they are more mature and more experienced."

And the Warriors can still get the ball in the end zone. They ranked fifth nationally in scoring, averaging 38.7 points -- even with the 10-point output against Emporia.

Of course, there is still the chance the Sioux could pound relentlessly on the Warriors. Pittsburg State's defensive line was as big and talented as any in Division II and UND was still able to free Adam Roland for 172 rushing yards in the Sioux's convincing first-round victory.

If that happens again, and the Sioux roll, Winona State will take its lumps afterward from critics. And that would be unfortunate, because the Warriors have already done everything that's been asked of them.

Readers can reach Mike McFeely at (701) 241-5580 or

What To Read Next
Get Local