DUBUQUE — Several minutes after his teammates had gone to the locker room, Matt Sacia still was on the turf at Chalmers Field posing for pictures with his family and the American Rivers Conference championship trophy.

The bone-chilling temperature and the stinger the Wartburg quarterback suffered in his left arm during the second half of last Saturday's 47-28 football win over Dubuque could not remove the smile from his face.

For the North Scott graduate, it has been quite a ride the past three seasons directing the offense of one of the top Division III programs in the nation. 

"I don't think I could have ever imagined it turning into something this big," Sacia said. "I had no expectations of what it was going to be like coming here.

"I just came in and worked as hard as I could at this and tried to make myself better each day. It has turned out to be an awesome experience and a lot of fun."

Sacia isn't done yet. 

Thanks to five straight wins to close the regular season, Wartburg (8-2, 7-1) clinched the conference title in the inaugural year of the American Rivers Conference (formerly Iowa Conference) to receive an automatic berth into the postseason.

The Knights open the playoffs against 11th-ranked Bethel (9-1) on Saturday in the Twin Cities.

Wartburg has won 20 of its last 23 games with Sacia as its quarterback. It reached the quarterfinals last season. 

The 6-foot-2 and 195-pound Sacia already has set Wartburg career records for completions (665), completion percentage (66.6) and touchdown passes (91). 

He's second at Wartburg in career passing yards with 8,839 yards. He trails Logan Schrader by 321 yards for the No. 1 spot. 

"I stand out there literally in practice every day in awe of what Matt does," Wartburg coach Rick Willis said. "He's as good as it gets, and he's everything you want in a quarterback.

"He's a great person, great leader, makes great decisions and has an unbelievably accurate arm. All of our guys trust in him and believe in him. When you have that, you've always got a great chance."

Sacia was among four finalists last season for the Gagliardi Trophy, given to the top student-athlete in D-III football. 

He's nearly duplicated his production from 2017 with a much less experienced supporting cast.

Expected to be named the American Rivers Conference Offensive MVP later this week, Sacia is third in the country in passing efficiency (189.1), tied for fifth in touchdown passes (32) and 11th in passing yards (2,841). 

"I've never been too big on records and looking at that stuff," Sacia said, "but I think those numbers reflect the team success we've had. A successful team allows big numbers to be put up."

When Wartburg has needed Sacia most in the second half of the season, he has delivered. 

In the last four games, Sacia has completed 83 of 109 passes (76 percent) for 1,247 yards and 17 touchdowns versus one interception. He has been the conference offensive player of the week three times this season, twice in the last month. 

"Personally, I think I have played better the last few weeks," he said. "After the crisis situation we were in at mid-season, I knew I had some things that if I could improve then maybe everyone else around me can learn from that."

His skill-set was on display in Saturday's conference-clinching win.

He extended plays with his feet. He threw the ball on the run. He completed throws into tight windows. He led his team back from a halftime deficit. 

Sacia said he's developed the most the past four seasons learning the complexities of a defense and the Xs and Os behind what goes into the plays on the field. 

"Matt has just been so consistent, week in and week out," Willis said. "It is a huge team deal to accomplish what we've done, but there is no way we'd be here without Matt Sacia.

"He prepares, shows up every single day and is spot-on. There is no question Matt is up there with the best (quarterbacks) we've ever had."

Sacia has had the opportunity to share the success with long-time friend Dane Steidler. Teammates at North Scott in football and baseball, Steidler is a starting safety for Wartburg.

They took a photo on the field following the win with North Scott coaches Kevin Tippet and Tim Brunkan.

"I've been with Matt for 12-plus years, ever since we started playing tackle football," Steidler said. "It has just been fun to see him out there making plays. I wouldn't change it for the world."

Uncertain initially whether to pursue football or baseball in college, Sacia did not have any scholarship offers coming out of North Scott.

Division II power Northwest Missouri State and Drake, a non-scholarship FCS program, showed interest.

More than football, Sacia was drawn to Wartburg's pre-med program. His parents, Eric and Stephanie, graduated from Wartburg.

His mother was the Iowa Conference MVP in women's golf in 1990. With Sacia being last year's conference MVP, it marked the first time a mother-son duo had done that in a D-III conference.

Sacia is in the process of applying to medical schools. The plan is to become an orthopedic surgeon. 

Even after Wartburg's season ends, Sacia is open to more football.

"If an opportunity did present itself (at the professional level), I would enjoy playing again," Sacia said. "It is not a set in stone plan yet."

Sacia wants to savor the final chapter of his career at Wartburg. He's called the last four years the best time of his life.

"At this point, I can't imagine it being too much better," Sacia said. "I've learned a ton of things and met some lifelong friends. 

"This whole experience has been great and truly special."

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Sports Editor

Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.