Coach Mike Schmidt had to turn away from the projector screen about three-quarters of the way through the NCAA Division III football playoff selection show.
He knew a couple of minutes before it was made official — despite an 8-2 record and a resounding 56-7 win at UW-River Falls on Saturday, the UW-La Crosse football team did not earn one of the seven at-large playoff berths.
UW-Oshkosh (9-0, WIAC champion) was the only WIAC team to make the 32-team tournament.
“We knew the contenders for those at-large spots coming in, and we knew it was going to be a longshot,” Schmidt said after the Eagles watched the selection show together in a conference room in the student union.
“It’s a tough break for our guys, but I’m pretty proud of this group.”
The eight wins was the most for the program since 2006, and a sign that UW-L is making strides toward reasserting itself as the perennial power it once was. Had the Eagles been able to pull out either of their two losses this year — 21-14 at Whitewater and 42-28 at home against No. 3 Oshkosh — they would’ve been shoo-ins for an at-large bid.
Once all the teams were announced, more than 20 seniors gathered near the front of the conference room, exchanging hugs. There was a mix of tears and “thank yous,” emblematic of the moment that was a combination of both disappointment that the season was over, but appreciation for what the team had accomplished.
“It’s a gut-punch,” senior safety Ryan Weber said. “It’s devastating not to get called because we know we could compete with every team on that board.”
Weber — twice elected team captain — said while there was pain now, the team will look back at itself as the group that got UW-L turned around.
“We’ve got to celebrate what we did this year. 8-2. This group of seniors, everything we went through, I’m so proud of this group,” Weber said. “La Crosse football is back.”