Zach Butler makes a play for North Central College this year.
Zach Butler makes a play for North Central College this year. — Provided photo/NCC

Since Linfield won the 2004 NCAA Division III national championship, only five different schools have appeared in the title game.

Now Zach Butler, Eric Letterer, Miguel Delvalle and the North Central Cardinals have crashed the party, becoming the sixth team to appear in the final – and they want to become only the fourth different team to win it in that span.

“I had kind of looked into the background of North Central and how they’ve done, but I always assumed they had won a national championship,” said Delvalle, a freshman defensive tackle who played mostly on the junior varsity and scout teams this year. “But I found out they never did. So that was really cool to me, ’cause if we can do it in my four years here, it would be awesome. North Central has always been pretty good, but they’d hit a hump in like the second round. We wanted to be the group that got past that.”

The hump in the second round was a big one – the Cardinals won a 59-52 shootout against 13-time champion Mount Union.

Butler, a junior safety from Genoa-Kingston, was second on the team in tackles in that game. He had seven tackles, 0.5 for loss, in the win.

And even though they knew they had to get through Wabash first – they won the playoff opener, 51-15 – Butler said the Cardinals were pumped when they saw Mount Union lurking in the second round.

“We were really excited when we saw the schedule,” Butler said. “I mean, we didn’t look past Wabash, because we knew we had them first. But we saw that Mount Union was there in the second round. We were excited for the challenge. No one feared Mount Union going into it. We weren’t scared. We believed no matter what we were going to win. Even when we were down, 10, at halftime, we knew we could do it.”

The Cardinals then knocked off Delaware Valley, 31-14, and Muhlenberg, 45-14, to reach the finals.

Waiting for them is another powerhouse, Wisconsin-Whitewater. The teams play at 7 p.m. Friday in Shenandoah, Texas. The Warhawks have won six national championships, the most recent in 2014.

“They do everything exceptionally well,” said Letterer, a linebacker from DeKalb who started his prep career at Hiawatha. “They’re big up front and have great defense and great special teams. They’re an overall amazing team that does what they’re supposed to do. It’s going to be a great challenge, but it’s one me and my teammates are excited for.”

Butler said the team has been in win-or-go-home mode since well before the playoffs started. After a Week 4 loss to Wheaton in the Battle for the Little Brass Bell, 35-21, the Cardinals knew if they lost another game, they wouldn’t make the postseason.

“The whole year has kind been like the playoffs to us, ever since Week 4,” Butler said. “We knew we weren’t guaranteed a playoff spot since we weren’t going to win our conference. So the whole win-or-go-home thing hasn’t really gotten to us in the playoffs because we’ve been playing like that since the loss to Wheaton. It’s a crazy thing for North Central, but we’re ready for the opportunity.”

Even though he’s a newcomer, Delvalle said there’s an obvious change around the team. They’ve reached the semifinals before, but never the title game and usually an early exit.

Delvalle said the Mount Union game in particular, as other players told him, had a different feel.

“That whole week was eye-opening to see the level we were playing at, going against the best D-III program of all time. Mount Union has basically been phenomenal with 13 national championships or whatever it is and so many playoff appearances. So that whole week, how we had it was we expected to win, but we still had to show up. I heard in the past coaches would say something like ‘OK, against a tough team, we can’t do this, this and this.’ It was a lot of talk about how good they are and we can’t let them do this or that. But this year, the players are talking about how confident the coaches are each game. We know no one can stop us if we play our best football. And we never gave up. Even down 10 at halftime, we had a high motor and high energy. We knew we were getting this done.”