MILWAUKEE - The 2011 Wisconsin Lutheran College football season has already been a banner year in terms of the addition of the Outdoor Athletic Center at Raabe Stadium. It could be an even bigger year as the Warriors feel this could be the season they break through and capture their first conference championship in school history.
Twelfth-year head coach Dennis Miller knows winning the league title won't come easy, but he also knows that his team has to play up to its capability in 2011 if it wants to capture the conference championship. Last season, Miller felt the Warriors, who finished with a program-best 6-4 record, didn't do that in a couple games and it cost them in the long run.
"The key is to win the games we're in position to win," says Miller. "You have to win all the games you're capable of winning and maybe sneak out one or two that weren't going your way and somehow you figured out how to win, that's going to be the key to closing the deal."
With an offense loaded with experienced players and returning starters and a defense that features several talented, yet youthful players, the Warriors feel confident that 2011 could be very special.
While expectations are extremely high for the upcoming season, Miller also knows that upgrades made at the facility will be very important for his program not only this season, but for the future of Warriors football.
"It means so much, it's hard to even quantify," says Miller. "For our current team, what it means to us on a day-to-day basis is outstanding, and already looking forward to what the offseason and recruiting will be like is pretty exciting."
The Warriors return many key contributors to an offense that fared very well in 2010. WLC has a number of weapons on offense and Miller is very excited about the potential that group will have this season.
"We have not gone into a training camp in the last seven or eight years with so much optimism on the offensive side of the ball," says Miller.
Leading the offense for the third straight season will be junior quarterback Zach Shaw (Gurnee, Ill./Warren Township). Shaw has played in all 20 games and started 17 since his arrival on campus in 2009. Last season, Shaw threw 17 touchdowns, second most in school history, while throwing for 1,306 yards.
Miller understands the importance of having a veteran quarterback heading into the season. "It's just huge," Miller says. "The single biggest factor in any season is where you are at the quarterback spot."
With some changes on offense in the past season, Miller expects Shaw to really take off in 2011. "In the past year we have really adjusted our offense to take advantage of the strengths Zach has," says Miller.
Last season, WLC rushed for 151.1 yards per game, a number that not only was second best in the NAC, but also a school record. Senior running back Jesse Muldrow (Milwaukee, Wis./Wisconsin Lutheran) was a big reason for last season's success on the ground as he set a school record by averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Muldrow finished with 762 yards last season, good for the team lead.
"Jesse will come back as one of the top two or three running backs in our conference," says Miller. "He has a lot of ability and is a very gifted football player."
Muldrow will be joined in the backfield by sophomore Donavin Tucker (Brookfield, Wis./East), who ran for 301 yards last season.
"Donavin has just pure speed," says Miller. "He will be one of the fastest players in the conference, no doubt about that."
Paving the way for the halfback's this season will be returning junior fullback Devan Boling (Waukesha, Wis./South). Boling was a key reason for the team's success on the ground a season ago and is expected to be a key part of the offense again in 2011.
Taylor Pelot (Fond du Lac, Wis./Campbellsport), a junior, also returns as a versatile threat at both the halfback and fullback positions.
Of course no running back would have success without a talented and experienced offensive line and that is exactly what the Warriors bring back in 2011. Wisconsin Lutheran returns five offensive linemen that started at least seven games a season ago, as well as other key contributors who figured into the mix in past seasons.
Leading the way up front will be 2010 All-NAC Second Team selection junior Pat Harrington (Port St. Lucie, Fla./Jensen Beach). Also returning as starters are seniors Anthony Ahrens (Beloit, Wis./Janesville Parker), Josh Cheek (Machesney Park, Ill./Harlem), and Chris Olson (Hubertus, Wis./ Greendale Martin Luther), and sophomore Dylan Applin (West Allis, Wis./Wisconsin Lutheran).
In addition to those five players who made numerous starts last season, the Warriors also bring back a couple of former starting offensive lineman from 2009 in juniors Kyle Tolbert (Milwaukee, Wis./Wisconsin Lutheran) and Tyler Schmitz (Jefferson, Wis./Jefferson).
"The offensive line, if they can stay healthy, will be a strength of our football team", says Miller. "If you can identify eight offensive lineman that can get it done at the college level, you feel blessed, and we have that."
Some of Shaw's favorite targets in the passing game will be back in the forest green and white again this season as the Warriors return receivers who caught 13 of last season's 17 touchdowns. Miller is perhaps most excited about the return of senior tight end Kinte Collins (Chicago, Ill./Clemente), who averaged a team-best 17.3 yards per catch last season.
"Collins is coming back and in my opinion will be the best tight end in the conference," says Miller. "He has added some size to his other talents and is really going to be able to do some good things out there this season."
Last season's leading receiver, junior Josh Stodola (Denmark, Wis./Denmark), is back in the fold after catching 26 passes for 449 yards and six touchdowns a year ago. Senior Matt Lopata (Cudahy, Wis./Cudahy) is also back after hauling in 21 passes for 322 yards and five touchdowns. Junior Pedro Hardy (Milwaukee, Wis./South) could also figure into the passing game this season.
"At the wide receiver spot we really have some players coming back with a lot of ability," says Miller. "These are all guys who have already made an impact on our football program."
On the defensive side of the ball, the Warriors find themselves more youthful then in recent years. Gone are six all-conference defensive honorees from a season ago, including NAC Defensive Player of the Year Kaylan Gaines. WLC finished 2010 with the conference's second-ranked defense.
While some of the big names may be gone, Miller still expects his defense to play well in 2011. As he sees it, just because the number of starters lost is big, it doesn't mean the Warriors don't have players on defense that haven't made an impact before.
"We've got some players who have experience, albeit not at starting positions, but I think we're going to be a very good defense," says Miller. "Probably not with some of the marquee names of a year ago, but names that will become obvious to people as the year rolls along."
At the linebacker position, Miller expects some big things out of senior Tim Wermeling (Burlington, Wis./Burlington), who saw action in all 10 games a season ago.
"Tim has battled some leg injuries, but he comes back with a lot of experience," Miller says. "He's had a great offseason and I think he is going to be outstanding for us."
Other returners at linebacker this season who Miller sees making an impact are Jim Wheeler (Crystal Falls, Mich./Forest Park), a junior, and sophomore Eric Zeitler (Waukesha, Wis./Wisconsin Lutheran). While the group may not have a lot of starting experience, Miller expects his linebackers to be solid again in 2011.
"We have been a football team over the years that has always had good linebackers, and I really don't believe that's going to be any different this year," Miller says.
In the secondary it all starts with last year's All-NAC Honorable Mention selection junior Jason Kramer (Oconomowoc, Wis./Wisconsin Lutheran). Last season Kramer was second on the team with 66 tackles and three interceptions, while also breaking up seven passes.
"Jason is one of our well-known outstanding football players on the defensive side of the ball," Miller says.
Also expected to contribute in the secondary is sophomore Jordan Rabe (Oshkosh, Wis./West), who had an interception, and played very well in the season opener last year before suffering a season-ending injury. Juniors Tyler Schoen (Marion, Wis./Marion) and Trey Cochran (Bay City, Mich./Central) are also expected to play a key role this season.
Cochran and Rabe, both of whom missed most of last season due to injuries, have shown potential in the past. Miller knows that if both can stay healthy, his secondary has the opportunity to make some big plays in 2011.
"Jordan had a great offseason and has been working hard and looks like he's in great shape," says Miller. "If Trey stays healthy, we feel like he has a lot of things to give us."
The area where the Warriors may have been hit the hardest in terms of players lost may very well be in the defensive line, where four starters were lost to graduation.
"The area we are probably the most youthful at and we have to gain experience and savvy early on is the defensive line and that front four," says Miller. "We need some guys to step up and do some things there for us."
Miller mentioned five players that could be contributors on the defensive line, however, he also could see some incoming freshmen and others challenge for playing time as well.
Returning players that could make an impact up front this season include seniors Tyler Picchiottino (Ripon, Wis./Winnebago Lutheran) and Willie Johnson (Delray Beach, Fla./American Heritage). Juniors Lamont Anderson (Milwaukee, Wis./Hamilton) and Jake Zautner (Sun Prairie, Wis./Sun Prairie) as well as sophomore Taylor Montgomery (Largo, Fla./Largo) also could make contributions to the front four.
While the defense may be young, the Warriors are expecting another strong performance, and know their defense will be very important in taking the next step towards a NAC championship.
Donavin Tucker figures to be a key component in the special teams game this season as he returns as the team's leading returner. Last season, Tucker was selected to the All-NAC First Team as a return specialist after averaging 28.8 yards per return, ranking him eighth-best in all of NCAA Division III. Pedro Hardy could also see time as a kick returner. Last year, Hardy had a school-record 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and averaged 27.1 yards per return.
"Pedro and Donavin are just excellent return men," says Miller. "That is their strength and they both have outstanding speed."
Hardy was also the top punt returner a year ago, but Miller says who gets the majority of chances to be the team's punt returner will come down to a couple things.
"The punt return is probably up in the air a little bit," Miller says. "It comes down to who is sure-handed and who has the ability to get us some yardage."
The Warriors will have to replace two other key players in the special teams game in All-NAC First Team punter Shem Biebert and also place-kicker Phillip Chaltis.
Wisconsin Lutheran kicks-off its 12th season of intercollegiate football competition under the lights Saturday, September 3 by hosting non-conference opponent Ripon College at 7 p.m. at the newly-renovated Raabe Stadium. The Warriors begin NAC action October 1 by hosting Maranatha Baptist Bible College at 1 p.m.