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Published: Friday, 11/1/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Heidelberg gears up for royal game

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

There is a beautiful football field nestled in a hollow near Rock Creek on the Heidelberg University campus in Tiffin. It would be a gross exaggeration to say there is a stadium there.

So, fans of The Berg will grab their lawn chairs and blankets, leave home to arrive plenty early, and descend upon cozy Mayer Field early Saturday afternoon for the biggest college game in the state.

Heidelberg playing on campus and in a big game would have been considered visionary — or folly — in early 2007 when Mike Hallett moved from Thomas More (Ky.) College to Tiffin to become head coach.

The Student Princes were mired in a 36-game losing streak and had won only 15 of their previous 100 games. Just about nobody went downtown to Frost-Kalnow Stadium to watch a team that just about nobody other than moms, dads, and girlfriends cared about.

Hallett sought to change that culture and late in the 2008 season The Berg experimented by moving the final two home games to the turf soccer field on campus. The Princes have been there ever since.

They bring in temporary bleachers that seat maybe 1,200 and everybody else sits on the hillside or in lawn chairs or stands on the running track. Heck, this weekend, fans might be dangling from nearby tree limbs.

It will be the No. 1-ranked Division III team in the nation, Mount Union, matching 7-0 records with No. 9-ranked Heidelberg. The teams have defeated the same six Ohio Athletic Conference foes thus far in 2013. Mount has scored 347 points against those teams. The Berg has scored 346. How good is that?

It’s about as good as the Student Princes were bad. Oh, Heidelberg has a proud grid history, but it is rather ancient history. There were seven OAC championships, five of them from 1948-59 under The Fox, which is what everybody called the great, late coach Paul Hoernemann (we’ll get back to that name shortly).

Good seasons were hit and miss — highlighted by a Stagg Bowl win in 1972 — after that. And then came the abyss. And then came Hallett.

“We had to find out who was serious and who just liked wearing the T-shirt,” Hallett said. “So we made kids work harder than they’d ever worked before so that they would be as invested in the program as the coaches. It wasn’t a social organization. It was a work organization and a merit organization.”

Hallett recalls there were about 90 players at his first team meeting in January of 2007. By the end of spring practice only 62 were still around. It may not have been Bear Bryant and the Junction Boys, but you get the drift.

Those who stayed didn’t wait long to be rewarded. The Princes won the first game they played under Hallett, snapping the losing streak, and went on to capture four victories in 2007.

The steady rebuilding job continued and reached an 8-2 mark in 2011, 9-1 with a first trip to the D-III playoffs a year ago, and 7-0 thus far this season.

But there is still plenty to be accomplished and, as is usually the case in the OAC, it revolves around powerful Mount Union, which has won 11 national championships since 1993 and which owns a 188-7 record since the start of the 2000s.

Plenty of wins have come at the expense of The Berg, which hasn’t beaten the Raiders since 1988. That’s 24 straight losses.

It should be mentioned that Hallett knows a bit about Mount’s success. After transferring from Kent State, Hallett became the D-III defensive lineman of the year while playing for that very first Mount Union national title team in ’93 under legendary coach Larry Kehres.

“Everyone draws that correlation, that I’m trying to build a program in Mount Union’s image,” the 44-year-old Hallett said. “It’s an influence. But I’ve had lots of influences and I’ve stolen from all of them.”

He also pooh-poohs the importance of this meeting, saying simply, “It’s a game, a game against a great opponent, but we can’t freak out about it. You have to be talented to compete with them and I think we’ve closed the gap. It’s a big game, but there are a billion people in China who don’t care who wins.”

True. But there will be a few thousand packed in and around Mayer Field with slightly more interest.

When they return next fall they will find what Hallett calls the facility’s “county fair” atmosphere replaced on one side by the $4.5 million Paul Hoernemann Stadium. A group of The Fox’s former players raised $1 million to match a gift by several school trustees.

Considering the upward trajectory of The Berg’s football program, the naming rights were a bargain buy.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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