Changing of the guard?
|Steve McCollom forced a fumble and intercepted a
pass for UW-Whitewater.
By Keith McMillan
SALEM, Va. – UW-Whitewater’s victory in Stagg Bowl XXXVIII on Saturday evened the series of six championship meetings in a row against Mount Union at three titles each, but with three in the past four seasons it ushered in a new era in Division III: that of the Warhawks’ dominance.
With 30 consecutive victories and back-to-back national titles, there’s a new undisputed king of non-scholarship football. Mount Union, tied or within a field goal in the fourth quarter of all three losses to the Warhawks, is still seated next to the throne, with the rest of the division on a lower tier. But a program whose foundation was laid by Bob Berezowitz before he passed off the coaching duties to Lance Leipold, who improved to 57-3 in four seasons, now graduates a senior class that has known more seasons to end with championships than without.
In 2005 and ’06, before this year’s seniors were Warhawks, UW-Whitewater had reached the pinnacle only to be sent back to Wisconsin scratching their heads. Mount Union led 28-7 on the way to a 35-28 win in ’05. In 2006, the Purple Raiders outscored the Warhawks 21-3 in the second half of a 35-16 win. The Warhawks could see the apex, but couldn’t quite reach it.
“Until you win one, you really can’t walk tall,” said Warhawks cornerback Matt McCulloch, who had two interceptions in his final collegiate game. “It’s wasn’t until we won in ’07 that we realized ‘Wow, they are human. They can be beat.’ ”
Every season, 30 other teams join the Warhawks and Purple Raiders in the postseason. And there are myriad reasons – from depth of program, to coaching to raw talent to extra weeks of practice from previous Stagg Bowl runs – why the same two keep emerging. But getting over the mental hurdle was apparently part of the process.
“Ever since then, we come in with the sense we’re going to win the game,” McCulloch said.
Saturday started well – Whitewater led 10-0 early in the second quarter before turnovers started a 21-point Mount Union spurt. Down 11, the Warhawks never panicked, and figure they’d find a way to get back into the game. And not only did they get back in, they retook the lead before the half. Mount Union scored 21 in the second half but never crossed the goal line again.
The Warhawks are a nose-to-the-grindstone sort of program. Everything about them – from their ‘Pound the Rock’ mantra to their ‘one week at a time, never assume we’ll be back to Salem’ mentality says as much. Even their on-field style, sticking with the run and letting their offensive line wear teams down over the course of the game, is workmanlike.
Defensive tackle Luke Hibner, like McCulloch, spoke of looking up to the seniors from the ’07 team as role models. And even though Hibner said he’d have more hardware than those guys – “seventy-five percent of my seasons ended with a championship,” he realized aloud during the postgame news conference – those guys would always be the ones who, in his mind, set the standard.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have any of this,” he said.
Now, young Warhawks will look to Hibner’s class and consider them the torchbearers.
“I don’t want to be the senior class to not do well at Whitewater,” junior safety Steve McCollum said.
It’s a sentiment Mount Union players are familiar with. In Alliance, the week-before-Christmas trip to the Stagg Bowl is penciled in as part of the holiday season. Championships are expected, even though players say they never assume they’ll win. After going 10-4 in 14 trips to Salem, no one would blame the Purple Raiders for thinking championships are their birthright. With Larry Kehres (303-23-3) at the helm for 25 seasons, they’ve earned respect in all corners of the D-III world.
For the first time since Mount Union first won in Salem in 1993, a championship team was asked to consider whether it had surpassed the Purple Raiders as the new standard bearer.
“I’ll leave that for you to answer,” Leipold said.
Hibner joked that the Purple Raiders have almost as many trips to Salem as he is years old.
“They’ve been doing it for so long,” McCulloch said. “I don’t think we’re the team to beat every year like they are.”
Perhaps with a little time to reflect, McCulloch will change his perspective. After all, it's been six consecutive seasons with the Warhawks in the top two. The past two years, a late Levell Coppage run capped a 15-0 campaign.
Before the rest of the division gives up on scaling the new mount, remember that one superb Whitewater senior class gave the current Warhawks the belief they could be kings of the hill. And at the moment, they are. The journey of a thousand miles – interpreted differently based on how far away from the apex the other 223 playoff-participating schools are – begins with one step.
Along the road to Salem, the Warhawks and Purple Raiders often stress that getting back is never guaranteed. And as Mount Union learned, getting back even with a score to settle and a chip on the shoulder doesn’t necessarily lead to victory. But it certainly lights the fire which will burn throughout the offseason and fuel the attempt to reach the top.
Asked if losing three of the past four Stagg Bowls means UW-Whitewater has surpassed Mount Union as the team which others are judged by, Kehres replied with a wink and a smile. “They’re kind of ticking me off. I might have to come back and win three of the next four.”