DOVER — Most of their classmates were heading home for some Thanksgiving turkey and a few days of relaxtion.
But Wesley College’s football players?
They were heading out to the practice field on Wednesday in the cold and rain.
That’s the price the Wolverines pay for winning their NCAA Division III playoff opener last Saturday. Wesley (9-2) hosts Ithaca (9-2) on Saturday at noon in a second-round tournament game.
“One thing you try not to do is take it for granted,” said junior center Alex Niezgoda, a Dover High grad. “You play here because we have a winning tradition. There’s always a chance that you’re going to the playoffs every year. You have to realize that this is a special thing — making the playoffs isn’t easy.
“You can’t control the weather,” he added. “You’ve got to enjoy the experience.”
For Wesley’s veteran players and coaches, this is all a part of their Thanksgiving tradition now. This is the Wolverines’ ninth straight playoff appearance.
That’s the third-longest active streak in the country behind only small-college giant Mount Union (22 years in a row) and Mary Hardin-Baylor (10). Every year, Wesey has reached at least the second round of the tourney.
Local players like junior cornerback De’Vaughn Trader will make it home to Delmar for dinner on Thursday. But not before he and his teammates have an early-morning practice in what is expected to be pretty cold weather.
“I’m pretty much used to it by now,” said Trader. “A lot of people think it’s the worst — you can’t go home and see your family. And it’s hard to see everybody leave (campus).
“But I’d rather be in the playoffs. They (his family) have the idea. I explained everything to my family before Thanksgiving. ... I’m just blessed to be on this team. It’s been a great experience. I’ll never forget it.”
Junior linebacker Jordan Wescott will be heading back to Sussex County after practice on Thursday, too. The Woodbridge High grad will be having dinner at his grandparents’ home in Greenwood.
“Just relax, watch some football and get full,” said Wescott.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, we have practice on Thanksgiving,’” he said. “That’s a good thing. Coach usually has it pretty early in the morning so we can get it out of the way and have the rest of the day off.”
Besides getting his team ready to play a playoff game, coach Mike Drass has also had to make sure all his players have somewhere to go for dinner on Thursday. It’s a good problem to have, of course.
The Wolverines’ playoff tradition is something Drass appreciates. But he says it won’t be until after the season is over that he gets a chance to actually sit down and savor things like this.
“While you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really think much about it,” said Drass. “You appreciate it. You look at the Top 25 and I think seven of them aren’t in the playoffs. I’m grateful that the (playoff) committee chose us.
“We’re lucky,” he added. “Believe me, we appreciate the fact that we’re still playing.”
•Tickets for Saturday’s game are $10 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under. They will go on sale Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at Miller Stadium.
•Starting running back Rick Jackson is expected to be sidelined for the Ithaca game with a toe injury.
The sophomore is the team’s leading rusher with 447 yards and five touchdowns on 104 carries. Freshman Jamar Baynard from Middletown, the team’s second-leading rusher (53 carries-263 yards), will start in his place.
•Ithaca is a three-time Division III national champion (1979, ‘88 and ‘91). But the Bombers’ 20-17 win over Framingham State on Saturday was the program’s first playoff win since 2003.
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.