Karras’ Knights rise from swamp to possible NAIA title
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent December 9, 2012 11:20PM
naia football championship
When: 6:34 p.m. Thursday
Where: Rome, Ga.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Updated: January 11, 2013 6:21AM
Five years ago, Marian’s Knights slogged through practices in a nature preserve lovingly dubbed “Ecoland.” Players walked 20 minutes from campus to whet their appetite for football practice.
“It’s a wetland which gets kind of soupy when it rains,” notes Marian coach Ted Karras Jr. “It’s all we had our first year (2007).”
Before moving into St. Vincent Stadium, which comfortably seats 3,000, the Knights farmed out home games to Indianapolis Pike High School for two years.
Karras jump-started the NAIA program after three years at Rose-Hulman. After going 1-9 in his inaugural season, the former Andrean coach has guided the Knights to a 33-5 record and three straight NAIA playoff appearances since 2010.
Now, thanks to Mike Josifovski’s last-second field goal, only unbeaten Morningside College (Iowa) stands between the brash newcomers and their first national title.
“We went from the swamp to the mountain,” says Karras, who grew up in Miller, but played his football at Hobart High School and Northwestern. The mountain refers to Helena, Mont., where Carroll ended Marian’s first playoff appearance.
“We’ve lost to the national champion for the last two years,” Karras says.
Marian’s two-year record might be unblemished if not for St. Xavier of Chicago, which beat the Knights in the 2011 semifinals, then knocked them off in the regular season this year. Karras takes those losses personally since he served as St. Xavier’s offensive coordinator for four seasons.
“We were hoping to get another shot at St. Xavier,” adds Josifovski, who morphed from a soccer player at Hobart to college kicker extraordinaire. “It was a big surprise when Morningside pounded them (47-19).”
Marian squeaked past Missouri Valley College 20-17 on his four field goals, including a school-record 54-yarder and a last-second 51-yarder. According to Karras, the decisive kick had enough oomph to carry another 10 yards.
“That put him in the national spotlight,” says Karras, who recruited Josifovski out of Harper Junior College, where he labored in obscurity. “I think he only had three attempts in junior college and two were blocked.”
Josifovski did kick six field goals as a sophomore at Harper, which was rebuilding with a new coaching staff when he arrived.
“We only won two games in two years,” he explains. “Not a lot of scoring so I didn’t get many chances.”
At Marian he earned Mid-States, all-Mideast Conference first-team honors for two straight years. Currently he stands 12-for-22 in field goals and 52-for-53 in extra points. Every other kickoff seems to end in a touchback. His 50-yarders attracted the attention of Canadian Football League scouts, who will be checking him out Thursday.
Josifovski credits former Hobart coach Wally McCormack for tuning him on to football after discovering him on the soccer field.
“He approached me during my freshman year and said he thought I had potential,” Josifovski remembers. “I took him up on the offer and it worked out pretty well.”
His Hobart roots swayed Karras, who aroused Josifovski’s interest during a recruiting visit to Harper.
“He and Coach (Martin) Mathis talked to me about what was going on in Indianapolis,” says Josifovski, who agreed to a visit.
There, he connected on a one-on-one level.
“Coach Karras is very charismatic, a natural born leader,” he said.
Asked about his dramatic field goal against previously unbeaten Missouri Valley, Josifovski admits to being nervous, but determined.
“All I could think of was the hours of practice leading up to that moment,” he says. “The pain of two-a-days. I had to come through for me and my teammates.”
Naturally, the Knights will carry other weapons into Thursday’s title game in Rome, Ga. It takes more than a kicker to go 11-1.
Explosive running back Tevin Lake has contributed 1,978 all-purpose yards and 20 touchdowns.
“He’s special, a devastating blocker who also catches the ball well,” Karras says.
On the throwing end, quarterback Adam Wiese has clicked on 69 percent of his passes for 2,990 yards and 27 touchdowns. His primary targets are wide receiver John Hasty (47 catches, 479 yards) and tight end Nathan Jones (43/511/6 TDs), but 10 receivers have tiptoed into the end zone.
“Wiese has football savvy beyond his years,” Karras says.
NFL scouts, in particular the Patriots, are checking out Jones, who is 6-3, 245 with 4.6 speed in the 40.
“He’s one of our most versatile players,” Karras notes. “We also use him as a fullback and H-back. He’s one of the top tight ends in the country in receptions.”
Defensively, ends Seth Vondersaar and fifth-year senior Dan Brunke highlight Marian’s 4-4, cover-3 scheme. Brunke tops the Knights with eight sacks and Vondersaar leads them in tackles. Both have 13 stops for negative yardage. Safety Stephen Rogers heads the secondary with five interceptions.
On paper, the Mustangs should be favored. They saddled up for their ninth straight playoff run behind quarterback Joel Nixon. He shredded St. Xavier for nearly 400 yards, leads the nation in pass efficiency and ranks second in total offense (337.2 average).
If the Knights spring an upset, Karras might be destined for an upward move, but deflects that line of questioning. His seven-year stint at Marian is the longest of his coaching career.
“I love Indianapolis,” he says, simply.