Football - Fri, Dec. 1, 2006
Special by the Daily Southtown, by Nick Firchau

The letters are coming in almost every day, mostly from fans and well-wishers, cheering Saint Xavier on to at least one more win.

The strangest note to cross the desk of Cougars head coach Mike Feminis, however, was a congratulatory word he received last week from a Georgetown College (Ky.) alum, class of 1974.

The man didn't profess to any ties to Saint Xavier or the Chicago area, but was simply wishing the Cougars good luck during what has evolved into the best football season in school history.

"I think that shows a little bit of the kind of support we're getting from everyone," Feminis said. "It's crazy, but our guys definitely appreciate it. And you know what? They've earned it."

The No. 9 Cougars are treading where no Saint Xavier squad has before. At 11 a.m. Saturday, the Cougars (10-2) will travel to meet top-ranked St. Francis (Ind.) (12-0) in the NAIA Championship Series semifinals in Fort Wayne, Ind. Saturday's game will be broadcast live on WXAV-FM (88.3) and on the Web at www.wxav.com.

The winner will advance to the NAIA championship game, scheduled for Dec. 16 in Hardin County, Tenn. The other semifinal Saturday features Missouri Valley (13-0) at Sioux Falls, S.D. (12-0).

Saint Xavier's burgeoning NAIA postseason r--sum-- includes visits in 2002 and '05, but this season marks the first time the Cougars have lasted beyond the first round.

The Cougars started their postseason run this year on Nov. 18 with a 42-28 win over host Georgetown (Ky.). One week later, Saint Xavier stunned four-time defending national champion Carroll College (Mont.) 14-7 to earn the semifinal match-up against St. Francis.

St. Francis boasts an overwhelming record of 35-2 over the previous three seasons, its only losses coming in the last two NAIA championship games against Carroll College.

"They are a great team and a tremendous challenge for us," said Feminis, who's in his eighth year at the helm at Saint Xavier. "There are plenty of reasons why they're the top-ranked team in the country. But believe me, our guys expect to come out there cranked up and really give them a game."

Saint Xavier enters the game with what Feminis dubbed a "national championship-caliber defense," a product of largely Southland talent and of defensive coordinator Werner Emmrich, who was the head coach at Marist High School from 1995-99.

The Cougars have allowed 13.2 points per game and given up just 19 touchdowns in 12 games. Junior linebacker Sean Kenney (Stagg) boasts a team-high 96 tackles, junior defensive lineman Justin Tuffs (Stagg) leads the team with seven sacks and junior defensive back Mike Wilkinson (St. Rita) has a team-high four interceptions.

"The Georgetown game just gave this group a ton of confidence, and I don't think that changed when we went to Carroll," Feminis said. "Our guys stood in and went toe to toe with them, and the defense had a lot to do with that."

Feminis added that this year's Saint Xavier squad is the healthiest he's had this deep into the postseason. That includes a clean bill of health for sophomore starting quarterback Billy Yeo (Rich South), who suffered a blow to the head in the first half in the quarterfinal vs. Carroll College.

Against Carroll, sophomore quarterback Jeremy Zientek (Marist) filled in admirably in Yeo's absence, throwing a touchdown pass to help rally the Cougars from a 7-0 halftime deficit.

"The hard work is paying off for these guys, and they're getting a lot of attention," Feminis said. "These guys are so happy with what they've done, but not a single one of them is satisfied yet."

Under Feminis, the Cougars are 0-2 vs. St. Francis.

St. Francis beat Saint Xavier 42-38 on Sept. 11, 1999, in Feminis' first game as SXU head coach. In the 2002 NAIA playoffs, St. Francis defeated the Cougars 34-30 in the first round.

Feminis will be a guest on the "Dave Baum and Steve Olken Show" at 6:30 a.m. Saturday on WSCR-AM (670).