|The celebration was brief and the work has been intensive for UW-Oshkosh.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
|The Titans' defensive unit has only given up more than 24 points once all season.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
By Josh Smith
The main objective for every football team is to be ready to compete on game day. And when there are potential distractions prior to a game, being prepared is emphasized even more.
So as UW-Oshkosh gets set to make the program’s first appearance in the Stagg Bowl, coaches and players are preparing on the fly for the events leading up to Friday’s national championship game while remaining focused on football.
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As far as the game itself, the Titans feel they’re ready to take on Mary Hardin-Baylor.
“We’ve played in a lot of big games. We played in front of the largest crowd in Division III history this year at Whitewater,” UW-Oshkosh coach Pat Cerroni said, referencing the Oct. 8 game that 17,535 fans attended. “I’m not saying we’re going to totally not get freaked out here in Salem. But we feel pretty good about it.”
“It’s super exciting right now. It’s been the goal since last season ended,” senior linebacker Reese Dziedzic added. “We’ve had a lot of great teams come through here, especially in the last few years. But to be the team that finally breaks into that final game and gets to the championship is pretty special for us.”
However, for a team playing for its first national title, there are a number of unknowns about the days leading up to game. There are numerous media obligations, community appearances and banquets for the teams to attend in between practices and team meetings before they get to strap up their helmets and take the field.
“I’m sure it will be crazy when we get there,” Dziedzic said. “I’m just excited to get there and let it all unfold.”
Cerroni said he and his coaching staff worked quickly following Saturday’s semifinal victory to get as much information about Stagg Bowl week as possible to the players.
Now armed with the information they need for the trip to Salem, Cerroni is confident that his players can process everything and have the right mindset for Friday’s game.
Plus, the coach noted that it is Mary Hardin-Baylor’s first trip to Salem since 2004, so those players haven’t experienced this week either.
“So it’s going to be the team that can handle the emotion – the adversity. And I think both of these teams are championship teams, so we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Although the Titans are new to the Stagg Bowl, the WIAC is not with both UW-La Crosse and UW-Whitewater having won national championships. Cerroni received some advice regarding the Stagg Bowl from former UW-Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold this week.
“I had a great conversation with Lance (Monday) morning for about 30-40 minutes. Just can’t thank him enough. Even though we competed, he’s always been a good friend, and he’s helped out tremendously. Also Bob Berezowitz at Whitewater – those guys have been very helpful,” Cerroni said.
The Titans met on Sunday about the coming week, and the message emphasized was to enjoy the opportunity that only two Division III teams get to experience each year.
Oshkosh than gave its players approximately 48 hours, from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon, to get their academic obligations in order and prepare for the trip.
“That’s really how every week starts for us – Tuesday afternoon, so we’re not changing anything,” Cerroni said. “We’re going to stay on our track and do what we do.”
The coach trusts his team to handle the week with maturity and be ready to play Friday night. But it isn’t difficult for Cerroni to put trust in his players – that’s something he’s done all season.
Cerroni, who is in charge of calling defensive plays, often defers those play-calling duties to his players on the field.
“We have such a senior-laden team. They’ve been around for a long time,” the coach said. “A lot of them have played in a lot of games.
“Sometimes, as a coach, you just got to sit back and let your players play,” he continued. “They have the ability to change things around because of the knowledge they have. You use that resource any time you can get it.”
Cerroni said he has to do very little talking in the meeting room during the week. Rather, his players discuss formations and strategies among themselves as they prepare for an upcoming game.
Because of this, the coach can point out to the field at a player and have that person call a play that the defense discussed in the meeting room earlier that week.
“He gives us our freedom. He trusts us as players to make the right decision and make the right call,” Dziedzic said. “It takes a lot of pressure off of you, knowing that your coach has that much trust in you to make a decision off the top of your head right before a play comes in.”
The linebacker said this year’s veteran-laden defense is unselfish and experienced. That gives him optimism that the team will be focused and ready to play its final game of the season.
“Obviously, Mary Hardin-Baylor is an excellent team,” Dziedzic said. “It’s going to be a tough battle for us, but I think we just have to come in prepared and confident. We’re one of the best teams as well, so I think it will be a great game to watch. It will be a great game to play in.”
“I don’t know how we’re going to play. But this is what they’ve mentally prepared for. We just got to get them through the pageantry,” Cerroni added. “As far as the football goes, I think we’ll be fine. You hope you play well. You hope you represent well. That’s really my concern and the coaches’ concerns.”