Each Saturday in the fall, Nick Benedetto gets to watch the No. 2-ranked defense in NCAA Division II football.
When Benedetto, the defensive coordinator at the University of Sioux Falls (South Dakota) turns on game film, however, he sees more than a feisty group that allows fewer than 95 rushing yards a game and has piled up 24 sacks and 19 interceptions in 11 games.
“They play hard, and they play physical,” said Benedetto, a Crystal Lake South graduate. “They’re constantly trying to improve. They’re accountable people that don’t want to let their brothers down. Their strength is that the players care for each other. When you care, you’re able to build trust and continuity. I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Benedetto leads his defense Saturday into the D-II playoffs for the fourth time in five years. The Cougars (8-3), who allow 246.7 yards and only 16.6 points a game, open the postseason in Golden, Colorado, against Colorado School of Mines (11-0).
Mines ranks No. 8 nationally in total offense (507.6 yards a game) and scores 45.3 points a game.
Benedetto said the tests his players receive every day in practice provide strong preparation.
“We have a good defense because we get to go up against a good offense [36.5 points a game] every week in practice,” he said. “That makes us a lot better.”
The Cougars also are better because of a roster that has shown off its depth this season.
For example, preseason All-America cornerback Hakeem Johnson is out for the year with an injury.
Part of the solution for the Cougars is an increased workload for McHenry West grad Gio Purpura, a standout high school running back who moved to defense last year and has played safety and nickel cornerback this season in every game, including one start. Purpura also plays on all four special teams units for USF.
“He’s all over the field in a number of spots,” Benedetto said. “He’s been very successful, and I think he’s got a bright future.”
Purpura, a redshirt sophomore, has 18 tackles, two sacks and an interception.
“He’s embraced the defensive role,” Benedetto said. “He’s such a good athlete that he could play in multiple spots. He could go back to running back and be successful there.”
The Cougars enter postseason play on a roll, having won six of their past seven games, with the only blemish a 42-39 loss to Minnesota State, which is No. 3 this week in the D2Football.com poll.
Colorado School of Mines is No. 7 this week.
“It’s a players’ game,” Benedetto said. “We’ve got a team that believes in each other. They’re proven with hard work and dedication, anything is possible.”
Giustino is OVC’s best: The most dominant volleyball player in the Ohio Valley Conference took home its biggest award Wednesday. Marian Central grad Rachel Giustino, a senior outside hitter at Murray State, was named the league’s player of the year.
Giustino ranks fourth in the nation in kills a set (5.34) and leads the conference in that category. Only the third player in school history to win the award, Giustino has recorded 20 or more kills 17 times this season and 30 or more three times, including a career-high 33 kills against Austin Peay.
On Thursday, Giustino had 19 kills in a 3-0 OVC tournament win against UT Martin, which helped her reach 584 kills this fall, a single-season record at Murray State.
Peete makes top team: For the second season in a row, Johnsburg grad Alex Peete – a junior running back at D-III power Wisconsin-Whitewater – has been chosen as a first-team All-Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference player.
Peete leads the Warhawks (9-1) and the conference with 11 rushing touchdowns. He also ranks second in the WIAC with a team-high 749 rushing yards.
Whitewater, which won a share of its 37th WIAC title this fall, will open the postseason at noon Saturday with a home game against Monmouth. The playoff appearance is the 13th in the past 15 seasons for Whitewater.
In other WIAC awards, Marian Central grad Jared Churak – a junior defensive back at UW-Eau Claire – earned second-team all-conference after making 54 tackles, grabbing two interceptions and forcing two fumbles this season for the Blugolds (3-7).
Nemtuda stands tall at FAU: Junior outside hitter Sydney Nemtuda (Marian Central) has achieved second-team All-Conference USA volleyball honors this fall at Florida Atlantic University.
Nemtuda is the team leader in digs (289) and ranks second in kills (264), kills a set (2.84) and service aces (27). She is one of only four Conference USA players to average at least three digs and 2.7 kills a set this season.
The Owls (15-10) are the No. 5 seed this weekend at the C-USA tournament in Houston.
Rupcich back on first team: Andrew Rupcich, a junior offensive tackle at NAIA Culver-Stockton College, was named to the first-team All-Heart of America Athletic Conference North Division squad this week for the second consecutive season.
The 6-foot-7, 305-pound Rupcich (McHenry West) is the first Wildcat to earn back-to-back first-team honors in five years. He helped Culver-Stockton (6-5) put together the top-ranked passing game in the league at 291.6 yards a game and a league-high 26 touchdowns through the air.
Splitt shines for UIS: University of Illinois Springfield senior middle blocker Alli Splitt (Cary-Grove) earned second-team All-Great Lakes Valley Conference volleyball honors this week.
Splitt leads the Prairie Stars with 318 kills and 405.5 points this season, while piling up 106 total blocks. She ranks seventh in the league in hitting percentage at .313.
UIS (19-13) won five of its last eight regular-season matches to qualify for this weekend’s GLVC postseason tournament.
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.