Wolverines thankful for second chance
DOVER, Del. -- Last year was last year.
That was actually the way Wesley coach Mike Drass approached Saturday's game with Mary Hardin-Baylor, a team the Wolverines beat 46-36 in the 2005 second round before doing so again in last weekend's quarterfinals, 34-20.
The experience in leaving the past behind might serve the Wolverines well when they head to Perkins Stadium at UW-Whitewater, where their season ended in ugly fashion, 58-6, in last year's semifinals.
"Last year is last year," said Mike Drass, Wesley's head coach since 1993. "We talked about that regarding Mary Hardin-Baylor too. The past is the past and you can't do anything to change it."
"God is good for possibly giving us a second chance," said senior receiver Michael Clarke just after Saturday's game, while the Warhawks' contest with St. John's was still in doubt.
And that pretty much sums up the attitude for Wesley, a team in the same position as it was last season, but with few similarities.
In 2005, Wesley came through the playoffs as something of a surprise, having lost 43-0 to Brockport State during the regular season. Delaware's only Division III team had been road warriors, playing eight road games in Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, New York, western Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin. This year, they're 10-0 at home and 13-0 overall.
Last season, their offense was propelled by a senior running back and two receivers. Neither pass-catcher graduated or is with the team this season, but in their stead have emerged a new pair of star receivers. In the backfield, five players have shared carries, with freshmen leading the team in rushing and rushing TDs.
But one difference not reflected on the schedule or roster is simply Wesley's confidence.
Mary Hardin-Baylor coach Pete Fredenburg said the Wolverines are a more confident team this year, and the difference is noticeable.
"Last year we were kind of in shock," says star defensive end Bryan Robinson of the Wolverines' playoff run. "We hit a lot of people with them knowing. This year, they know what's coming."
Wesley still outscored its three playoff opponents 120-41.
Quarterback Chris Warrick, after accounting for 350 of the Wolverines 436 passing yards on a 468-yard day Saturday, was maybe the best demonstration of how the Wolverines expect to succeed.
Asked about his play, he first blamed himself for an early fumble that the Crusaders returned for a touchdown, and he also said he thought the Wolverines would be able to run the ball better. The day had gone about as well as expected, and here was Wesley's leader being a perfectionist.
So what exactly can Wesley's play against the Warhawks from being as imperfect as last year's?
Given time to look at last season's tape, Wesley might focus on trying to limit one of Whitewater's offensive strengths, either by loading up against the zone-blocking running scheme, or putting pressure on Warhawks QB Justin Jacobs. In last year's game, he was neither sacked nor forced into throwing an interception.
Wesley will also want to get off to a better start (it mishandled the opening kickoff and gave up a safety on the first play from scrimmage) and take better care of the ball. Neither team lost a fumble, but Warrick threw all four of the game's interceptions, including one that was returned by Kyle Johnson for a second-quarter TD.
They Wolverines will likely have something up their sleeves for the Warhawks. Last week against UMHB, coach Mike Drass came up with one of his innovations -- using Robinson, the 287-pound defensive end, as a lead blocker on offense, next to 264-pound TE Jon Lanouette -- while watching tape the morning of the game. Offensive coordinator Chip Knapp had Warrick make his reads inside-out, because the Crusaders were so adept at covering the outside receivers. Expect a solid, innovative game plan from the Wolverines.
About the contention that Wesley wearing the wrong shoes contributed to last year's loss, Drass says: "The shoes on the frozen field, that didn't do anything. We're accountable for how we play, whether it's good or bad."
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported after last year's game that Whitewater's players opted for turf shoes on the frozen grass field, while players from Wesley, who play on turf, wore cleats. The frozen field had caused kickoff to be delayed an hour.
The weather might not be so unforgiving this weekend. The Weather.com forecast calls for a high of 36 degrees and low of 26 Saturday in Whitewater, with a 10% chance of precipitation.
Whitewater hasn't blown out the past two teams it played, but it has done enough to beat UW-La Crosse and St. John's by three each. But they have been working star running back Justin Beaver back into from after missing half the season with a broken collarbone, and they might be a team of destiny in longtime coach Bob Berezowitz's final season.
Wesley knows how great its challenge is. This year, they plan to meet it.
In fact, they'd like to take it further.
"We want to take that extra step to put Wesley up there with the Mount Unions, the Whitewaters and Mary Hardin-Baylors," Robinson said.
Those schools have all been to the Stagg Bowl, unlike Wesley.
"Taking that step is big for us," said Clarke, acknowledging Wesley's past as a junior college. "It's big for the people who've gone here before us."
Many of those ex-players and alumni were in Dover on Saturday, pulling for St. John's, a No. 7 seed, to defeat Whitewater so there'd be an 11th home game. Instead, there's a second consecutive trip to Perkins Stadium, with the hope that one more thing is different about this Wolverines season than last.