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By JEFFREY ZUPANIC | Alliance Review
SALEM, Va. -- St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso is glad to be back in Salem, Va., but is happier with the circumstances that brought him back to Division III championship city.
Last year, Caruso took in the Stagg Bowl atmosphere as a reluctant observer after a loss to UW-Whitewater in the national semifinal. At first, Caruso declined the opportunity to attend the game after the Tommies finished 13-1 for the best season in school history, but at the last minute he changed his mind -- and is glad he did.
"I was upset after losing (in the semifinal) last year, and I didn't want to go there (to Salem)," Caruso said. "Then I thought about it and saw it as a great opportunity to get to watch what I feel is the standard of Division III football and a fantastic head coach in Larry Kehres."
Caruso was impressed with what he saw when he watched Mount Union practice on Wednesday and Thursday before last year's game.
He cited the Raiders' precision, organization and efficiency as top-notch and knew that's what it would take to get the Tommies to the national championship game.
St. Thomas was 2-8 before Caruso took the job five years ago, and he's brought them instant credibility in a short amount of time. The 50 wins in the last four years trails only Mount Union (56) and UW-Whitewater (52) for the most in Division III.
The program has improved with each season by advancing from the quarterfinal in 2010 to the semifinal last year. This year, they took it one step farther and have reached small college football's biggest stage.
"This is the ultimate goal, and we are so thrilled to have finally achieved it," said Caruso. "It is going to be an absolute honor to play against coach Kehres and Mount Union. I truly wouldn't have it any other way for our first time."
Caruso praised his seniors for their leadership in the program's growth the last three years.
"It hasn't been easy at all. It never is for any program to get to this point," said Caruso. "The players have gained the experience necessary to keep improving and they've also believed in the system. You are ultimately judged by how you handle adversity and you will have adversity in every year and every game. We have been able to harness the adversity."
The Tommies overcame some obstacles during the regular season and postseason to capture their first 14-0 record in school history. They advanced to the Stagg Bowl after wins against St. Norbert (48-17), Elmhurst (24-17), Hobart (47-7) and UW-Oshkosh (28-14).
Mount Union's road to Salem includes postseason wins against Christopher Newport (72-14), Johns Hopkins (55-13), Widener (72-17) and Mary Hardin-Baylor (48-35). The last of which came in a thrilling come-from-behind fashion.
Caruso was in the middle of coaching the Tommies to their semifinal win when the Purple Raiders were pulling off the fourth-quarter comeback, but kept hearing cheers at O'Shaughnessy Stadium.
"The cheers kept coming and going. It was like the crowd wanted Mount Union to win because they were getting louder and louder as they were coming back," said Caruso. "That's a sign of how much we respect them from afar and now as an opponent."
The respect is personal for Caruso after he spent time with Kehres at last year's Stagg Bowl. The two head coaches ended up staying at the same hotel and ran into each other in the lobby the morning of the national championship game. Caruso extended a polite greeting to Kehres with the intent of not wanting to bother him on gameday. But it was Kehres who pursued an in-depth conversation and the two talked for more than a hour.
"We talked about everything from life to football to family," Caruso recalled. "It was incredible talking to a man who has just a ridiculous record (like Kehres' 331-24-3 mark at Mount Union)."
Caruso's final memory from last year was getting to the stadium and taking in the pregame excitement. But he couldn't take his eyes off the two helmets on the scoreboard in the north end zone and developed a wild thought.
"I noticed those helmets (Mount Union and UW-Whitewater) have been fixed on that scoreboard for the last seven years. I wanted to change that," said Caruso. "I am sure I made somebody mad, because they have to spend some money now to get a new helmet. I am just glad it is ours that will be up there with Mount Union's," he added.