This story originally appeared in the Aug. 25 edition of the weekly LINK Reader. To get these stories first, subscribe here.
Thomas More University football coach Chris Norwell was sitting at his office desk on campus at Griffin Plaza under the main grandstand at Republic Bank Field. His office, situated at the 50-yard line, offers a panoramic view of the green expanse. It was a sunny Wednesday, a great day for football practice for the budding NCAA Division II program.
Norwell took a look at the Great Midwest Athletic Conference preseason coaches poll released earlier that day. His eyes scrolled down to the bottom of the poll where new coaching peers picked his Saints to finish 10th in their first season in the 10-team conference. Norwell looked out his window. He stared at midfield and pondered the state of the program in his second year as head coach.
“Seeing Thomas More coming in at No. 10 confirmed to me that we need to earn it,” Norwell said. “That’s our motto this year: Earn it. It works for the team and individually because the players have to earn reps in practice and earn playing time.”
It takes an entire program to earn respect. Norwell believes he has everyone pulling in the right direction. However, following their departure from the Mid-South Conference and the NAIA altogether, the Saints are marching into uncharted territory after last season’s 5-6 finish. They play for a man who earned his first head-coaching job after 13 years as Saints assistant, so they are a step ahead in knowing how to earn their keep.
“We’re better than we are on paper,” said wide receiver Freddie Johnson, one of two Saints all-conference players last season along with punter Elgin Phillips. “It’s exciting going to a new conference and Division II. We’ve been pumped up for this, and it shows in the weight room.”
The Saints’ opener is Sept. 2 at Davenport in Michigan. The home opener is Sept. 9 against University of Virginia’s College at Wise. The conference opener is at home Sept. 16. vs. Ohio Dominican.
“We played in a tough conference last season. I think we’re going to be well prepared for Division II,” safety Kolton Reeves said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a little bit of a learning year, but we want to win games.”
Conference coaches installed defending champion Ashland, 10-2 overall last season and 7-1 in the GMAC, as preseason favorites. Projected runner-up is Tiffin (6-5, 6-2) followed by Findlay (7-4, 6-2), Ohio Dominican (7-3, 6-2), and Hillsdale (5-6, 4-4) to round out the Top 5.
“It’s not how you start, but how you finish,” Norwell said. “We have 11 opportunities to showcase the team and change some opinions.”
In a year of change, fortunately it’s Norwell’s second season as head coach with the first-year stuff out of the way. Timing is good. All the Saints have to do now is go out and have the time of their lives. It’s already a historic season.
The Saints are in their second year of provisional membership to NCAA Division II. The move transitions Thomas More from the NAIA’s Mid-South Conference, where it has competed the past four seasons to the GMAC, which approved provisional membership for Thomas More in 2021.The Saints are eligible for the GMAC championship this season. They become eligible for NCAA championships in 2025, following the mandatory transition period.
Johnson and Reeves are part of a group of five Saints named to the 2023 Community Trust Bank Kentucky Collegiate All-Commonwealth Preseason Team presented by the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame. Also named were safety Colton Sandhas, defensive end Tanner Lawrence and guard Shaq Brown.
Reeves, Sandhas and Lawrence are three of eight returning starters in the attacking 4-3 defense, along with linebackers Del Thomas, Isaac Abdon and Trey Brausch, nose tackle Ross Halverstadt and cornerback Christian Rice. Thomas topped the team with 88 tackles. Halverstadt led with five sacks. Sandhas led with three interceptions.
There are changes in the multiple spread offense following the departure of the starting quarterback, leading rusher and top two receivers. Rae Vaden is the new starting quarterback in a large QB room of six, and he’s also the team’s leading returning rusher. He finished 30-for-60 passing for 347 yards and four touchdowns last season, with 142 rushing yards and three more TDs in a truncated season ended early by a knee injury.
Johnson had 33 catches for 325 yards and one TD. He’s one of five returning offensive starters. Receiver Preston Agee and tight ends Bobby Borneman and Mike Kirch also return. Running backs with the most experience are Jaden Hall and Jordan Marksberry. There are three freshman backs with promise. Tight end Trenton Hatfield doubles as a fullback.
Counting Brown, the offensive line returns five players with starting experience, including guards Leonard Taylor and Kyle Hillerich and tackles Jack Plattner and Cam Weil. The new center is Ryan Reynolds.
DATE OPPONENT SITE TIME
Sept. 2; Davenport University; Away; 12 p.m.
Sept. 9; University of Virginia’s College at Wise; Home; 12 p.m.
Sept. 16; Ohio Dominican University; Home; 7 p.m.
Sept. 23; Walsh University; Away; 12 p.m.
Sept. 30; Tiffin University; Home; 7 p.m.
Oct. 7; Kentucky Wesleyan College; Away; 7 p.m.
Oct. 14; University of Findlay; Away; 12 p.m.
Oct. 21; Hillsdale College; Home; 12 p.m.
Oct. 28; Ashland University; Away; 1 p.m.
Nov. 4; Northwood University; Away; 1 p.m.
Nov. 11; Lake Erie College; Home; 12 p.m.