By RJ WALTERS and JAMES GENSTERBLUM/ Daily News
The Chargers are officially in — no more speculation, only the excitement about how far this team can go.
The Hillsdale College football team’s season-ending banquet was a little more special Sunday, as it turned out not be a true “season-ending” gathering.
In the middle of the banquet the entire room erupted in cheers as the Chargers learned they will be going to Minnesota State-Mankato (10-1) Saturday for the school’s first-ever Division II playoff appearance.
“It was a chilling experience, and all the superlatives you can think of were present in that moment. It was something very special,” Chargers head coach Keith Otterbein said. “You could feel the gratification of everyone in the room, the parents, the support staff, the players and coaches, everyone that put their time and energy into this season just erupting in gratification of what all that hard work meant.”
The Charger program last played a postseason game in 1988, when it still competed as an NAIA school. Hillsdale moved up to Division II in football before the 1992 season, and now they will kick off a new chapter of the program’s legacy at noon local time on Saturday.
“It’s something we talk about a lot, rebuilding that tradition of success from the 80’s. We have three words that we identify as important at the beginning of every year and the first one is tradition. We’ve got 118 years of a very, very good football tradition here and our kids take a lot of pride in representing all 118 years of that tradition in their efforts and in their preparation, and then when they walk on that field they know and understand that they’re representing all of that tradition,” Otterbein said. “We talk a lot about how you do honor to that tradition, by playing with class and integrity and doing everything you do at a championship level. This year we’ve had the opportunity to be recognized, to go to the division II playoffs because of our dedication to those principles.”
Hillsdale finished the season with a 9-2 record and was sixth in the Super Region 3 final rankings. The Mavericks finished 10-1 and are the No. 3 seed in the region.
The Mavericks were the top seed in the region until yesterday, when they lost to St. Cloud State, 26-21. That loss dropped MSU to number three in the region.
In the other first-round game, Nebraska-Kearney will host Saginaw Valley State. Minnesota-Duluth is the number one seed, while Grand Valley State is the number two seed, and they each receive first-round byes.
The Chargers were ranked as high as third in the region, but strength of schedule dropped Hillsdale to sixth over the course of the last two weeks. Hillsdale’s last two wins, by a combined score of 118-38, came over teams with a combined record of 1-21.
The Chargers have won five straight games heading into next weekend’s playoff tilt, the longest winning streak for the team in 10 years.
Now Otterbein and his staff have to begin preparation for an unfamiliar opponent, but it’s a task they are more than happy to undertake.
“What we’ve got to do now is to shift gears from being satisfied and content that we are in the playoffs, and refocus and put all of our energy into putting together a game-plan that will allow us to go on the road and compete against a very good football team at a high level,” Otterbein said. “The same thing holds true, those games against Grand Valley, Wayne State, up at Northern, we have to put all those behind us because Mankato is the obstacle now.”
There will be 500 tickets allocated to Hillsdale fans for the game. Reserved tickets will cost $15, with general admission adult tickets going for $10. Youth and senior citizen tickets are $5, while college student tickets are $3. Children ages five and under are admitted into the game for free.
No phone orders will be accepted for tickets, but tickets can be purchased in advance of the event.
To buy tickets, check out the Web at www.msumavericktickets.universitytickets.com.
The stadium box office will open at 11 a.m. the day of the game.