By Ben • Ben Schorzman • 

Wildcats open the playoffs in the Wild West

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in two seasons covering the Linfield football team, it’s that the Division III tournament is one of the most confusing things to get a grip on.

You need to be fluent in the 239 teams that make up the NCAA’s lowest classification, you need to read legalese to make sense of the NCAA’s playoff qualification guidelines, and you probably need at least a minor in math or statistics to wade through the numbers.

This year’s playoff bracket is no less confusing than any other year. Because the NCAA pays for transportation in the playoffs, the amount of plane flights is taken into account when creating a bracket in Division III. This alone is a stumbling block for many D3 noobs. When we think bracket, we think an orderly system of ranked teams that are seeded then placed on the bracket in predetermined spots.

“In a true bracket scenario, this isn’t reflective of it,” Linfield coach Joseph Smith said. “Is this a cost bracket? Yeah.”

One doesn’t need to look further than Linfield’s quarter of the bracket. The Wildcats (9-0) are the top seed and host Pacific Lutheran at noon Saturday. Because of the small amount of playoff teams that make the tournament from the West Coast, it’s more cost effective to match league opponents against each other in the first round.

“(Pacific Lutheran) is a very difficult first-round draw for most teams,” Smith said. “The West is different. We don’t get the patsies other teams typically get in terms of the unranked teams. You look at Wesley, they have two unranked teams in their first two games. Yeah, it’s always going to be harder. The good news is, we’ll be tested if we get through it.”

Last year I did a story that looked into exactly why this imbalance happens, and mostly it’s because most Division III teams play east of the Mississippi River. Of course, Smith sees it a slightly different way. His Wildcats have proved they are one of the elite teams in the country, and earned what is unconfirmed by the NCAA as the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Still, he thinks there is some favoritism going on hidden beneath an excuse of being financially responsible.

“You will always find a massive Midwest bias,” he said. “It’s not even an East Coast bias as much as Midwest. They think their teams are the best. They think everything they do is the best, and it’s real.”

Until Linfield, Cal Lutheran or a team like Mary Hardin-Baylor from Texas breaks through Mount Union and Wisconsin Whitewater’s grip at the top, it’s hard to agree with Smith. Linfield and Pacific Lutheran are the only teams not in the Midwest or Northeast to win a Division III championship.

This isn’t to say that Smith is unhappy with how things shape out every year. Linfield has already broken through and consistently earns a high seed in the playoffs. The Wildcats just face a tougher road once they’re in. Which can be both good and bad.

“The road is set for whoever comes out of this part of the bracket,” Smith said. “It’s the hardest quarter of the bracket, bar none. It has the most top 10 teams in it. Whoever wins this quarter has a chance to make some noise and has a chance to win a semifinal game and then go play those big dogs over there.

“There are some great title contenders on this side of the bracket.”

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