Another first - Indians jump into national Top 25 poll

Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Chalk up another first for Southeast Missouri State University's football team.

The Indians finally broke into The Sports Network NCAA Division I-AA poll Monday at No. 24, marking the program's first regular-season national ranking on the I-AA level.

The Indians, who closed out their regular season Saturday at 8-4 after routing Samford 48-24 -- marking the program's best record since 1969 and first winning record since 1994 -- were ranked one other time by The Sports Network, but that was in the 1995 preseason poll.

"It's just one other thing for this program, another first for us," Southeast coach Tim Billings said. "Anything positive is good for this program. We're excited to be where we are.

"I'm excited for our kids, it's something they deserve. They're worked really hard to get where they've gotten."

Other notable firsts for the Indians this season was a victory over Middle Tennessee, which marked their initial triumph over a Division I-A team, and a win over Eastern Kentucky, the first time they beat the Colonels.

The Indians also will finish at least third in the Ohio Valley Conference, which would equal the program's best showing, and they still could finish as high as second depending on the outcome of this week's Eastern Illinois-Murray State game.

Still, all that is not likely to get the Indians into the I-AA playoffs for the first time, although they have been notified that they are being considered for a berth in the 16-team playoff field. But a number of teams ranked ahead of Southeast would have to lose their final regular-season games this week for the Indians to have a chance.

"It's a long shot, but we'll just wait and see," Billings said. "But it's the first time ever we've even been in contention for the playoffs, so that's a good thing."

Another bonus to being at least under consideration for the playoffs is the opportunity to get in more practices. The playoff field will be announced Sunday, so the Indians will practice three times this week in case they are selected.

"As a coaching staff, and having such a young team, it's great we get to have a few more practices," Billings said.

Even if the Indians don't get in the playoffs, Billings said that won't even begin to put a damper on this breakthrough season.

"It was a great season for us," he said. "One, you have to give credit to our players, who really worked hard all spring and summer.

"You also have to give credit to our assistant coaches. One, they've recruited great players here, and two, the way they've brought them along. I couldn't have asked more from our coaching staff. They're great men and I'm very fortunate to have them."

Although the Indians had valuable seniors -- most notably record-setting receiver Willie Ponder and defensive line anchor James Jennette -- toward the end of the season basically just one senior was starting on each side of the ball due to various injuries.

While Billings said the Indians still have a way to go in developing the kind of consistently successful program he set out to build, they are heading in that direction.

"We're still developing as a football team, but I don't think we're a one-year wonder," Billings said. "The big key now is developing tradition and hopefully we're doing that.

"The future looks bright. There will be a lot of pressure next year, with high expectations, but we just have to remember what got us here. We're definitely going in the right direction. Now the key is that we stay in that direction. We can't get complacent."

Southeast set 28 new school records this year, 15 individual and 13 team. All but one of the individual marks were attained by either Ponder or quarterback Jack Tomco.

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