MILWAUKEE - The 2012 Wisconsin Lutheran College football team has high expectations as it heads into the season and will hope to carry momentum over from a very successful 2011 campaign as they reach for new heights. Last season the Warriors finished 6-4, including a program-best 5-2 mark in conference play and ended the year with four straight wins, snapping Northern Athletics Conference champion Benedictine's 16-game conference winning streak to end the season.
With the success of last season and many returning pieces to the puzzle, WLC will be looking for its first-ever conference championship in 2012. Thirteenth-year head coach Dr. Dennis Miller sees no reason why his team can't compete for a conference championship this fall.
"I think we have consistently improved every year and I think that is a very good goal for us," Miller said, when talking about the goal of winning a conference championship. "We have high expectations for the season and the players have high expectations for the season and that's a real good combination when those two fit together."
Miller hopes that the Warriors' strong finish to the 2011 season will carry over to this year after the program-best four-game winning streak. Not only will the winning streak carry over, but the big victory over Benedictine in the final game of 2011 will also bring big momentum to the team.
"I think that momentum clearly carried over into the offseason and into recruiting for us," Miller said. "I think the win over Benedictine was a big benchmark for our program and very big for our veteran players."
Miller knows the key to reaching the ultimate goal in 2012 will be playing with consistency early and often. "Last year we got our act together mid-season and played very consistent the rest of the way," Miller said. "I think any coach will tell you what their looking for is consistency."
The 2011 Wisconsin Lutheran College offense was the best in school history as the Warriors set numerous school records. With several key pieces returning to the fold, WLC may have an even bigger offensive explosion in store this fall.
"We did some really good things in 2011 and while I'm a big believer that every year is a new year, we do return a lot of key players and I see no reason why we can't pick up where we left off," Miller said.
One of the key reasons for the high expectations on offense in 2012 is the return of senior quarterback Zach Shaw (Gurnee, Ill./Warren Township). Shaw will be in his fourth year as the team's starting quarterback, something very rare in college football. Last season, Shaw threw for 1,933 yards and 15 touchdowns while adding six more rushing scores.
"This is my 25th-year of head coaching and only the second quarterback I've ever had that has been a four-year starter," Miller said. "There is no finer teacher than experience and Zach has seen a lot of different things and that helps us look forward with optimism."
Shaw will have plenty of familiar faces around him this season, including the return of three running backs that saw significant action last season. WLC did lose top running back Jesse Muldrow but returns junior Donavin Tucker (Brookfield, Wis./East), senior Taylor Pelot (Fond du Lac, Wis./Campbellsport) and sophomore Michael Reeves (Hoffman Estates, Ill./Hoffman Estates) to the backfield this season. Tucker finished third in the NAC in rushing last season with 773 yards, including rushing for a school-record 220 yards against Rockford.
"We have three experienced, solid running backs coming back this season," said Miller. "Donavin, Taylor and Michael all have different strengths and skills and will really help our ability to run the football this season."
WLC will also feature several playmakers in the passing game this season as the Warriors return a few key players in 2012 led by senior Josh Stodola (Denmark, Wis./Denmark). Stodola caught 36 passes for 596 yards last season and finished with five touchdowns.
"Josh is one of those veterans who has a lot of playing experience," said Miller. "He has the ability to stretch the field and that will be very important to us."
The Warriors also return several other wide receivers who Miller mentioned will be able to do some dangerous things when they get the ball in their hands this year. Among those returning to the fold this season are sophomore Caleb Wolf (Cedarburg, Wis./Kettle Moraine Lutheran), junior Matt Gordy (Macomb, Ill./Macomb), sophomores Travis Turnquist (Madison, Wis./East) and David Sell (Manawa, Wis./Manawa) and senior Jorge Mora (Milwaukee, Wis./Hamilton).
One of the biggest losses for the Warriors this season is Kinte Collins, an All-NAC performer at tight end and one of the Warriors top pass catching threats for the past four seasons. Despite the loss of Collins, Miller feels WLC still has several players who can do some great things at the tight end position this season. Senior John Klein (West Allis, Wis./Wisconsin Lutheran) is the leading candidate to replace him, but other players such as senior Lawrence Seymour (Palm City, Fla./South Fork) could also step into the position this season.
"John played the tight end role in some ways last year," Miller said. "Lawrence has had a really outstanding offseason and has a chance to do some great things this year as well."
An area WLC lost the most from in 2011 was on the offensive line, but the Warriors still return two players who have garnered All-NAC recognition in senior Pat Harrington (Port St. Lucie, Fla./Jensen Beach) and junior Dylan Applin (West Allis, Wis./Wisconsin Lutheran).
"Those two are definitely going to have to be leaders on the offensive line because of their experience," Miller said. "They are very good players and will be counted on to lead our offensive line."
Junior Chris Klueger (Howards Grove, Wis./Howards Grove) is expected to be the team's starting center this season but WLC will still need to find two players to fill the other roles. Miller did mention he is excited for senior Devan Boling (Waukesha, Wis./South) to showcase what he can do on the offensive line after switching over from the fullback position.
"Chris is a smart player who understands the game very well," Miller said. "I think Devan has a chance to be a very good offensive lineman."
At this point last season, the Warriors were not sure what to expect from the defense as they sent out a unit in game one that returned only one starter from the previous season. While the defense hit road bumps early, they responded and played an outstanding second half of the season, finishing as the third-best defense in the NAC. With the strong finish in 2011, Miller expects to see a stronger and much more confident group in 2012.
"Last year at this time there was some angst because we had one returning starter," Miller said. "By mid-season we were as good or better than anybody we were playing on the defensive side of the ball and I have high expectations for this unit."
One big reason for the high expectations this season is the return of junior middle linebacker Eric Zeitler (Waukesha, Wis./Wisconsin Lutheran). Zeitler led the team with 77 tackles last season, including setting a conference and school record when he recorded 21 tackles versus Aurora.
"Eric is a special player who has great instincts," Miller said. "He is always around the ball and he makes several plays for our defense."
Zeitler will be joined by several other returning veterans at the linebacker position as senior Jim Wheeler (Crystal Falls, Mich./Forest Park) and junior Cody Thurber (Tarpon Springs, Fla./East Lake) return to the fold this season. Miller also anticipates several other players who could contribute as solid linebackers in 2012. Junior Zach Brandt (Menomonee Falls, Wis./Kettle Moraine Lutheran) is one of those players Miller sees helping the defense this season.
Perhaps the biggest strength to the defense this year will be the secondary, where several players who made solid contributions last season are returning.
"The secondary is such a big deal for how many points you give up," Miller said. "Those are the big plays that have to be stopped and need to be made."
The Warriors return three outstanding safeties in seniors Tyler Schoen (Marion, Wis./Marion) and Jason Kramer (Oconomowoc, Wis./Wisconsin Lutheran) and junior Mitch Ronacher (Safety Harbor, Fla./Countryside). WLC also welcomes back junior starting cornerback Jordan Rabe (Oshkosh, Wis./West) while junior Richard Belsky (Cedarburg, Wis./Milwaukee Lutheran) and sophomore Josh Reznack (Hales Corners, Wis./Pius XI) are players who should contribute this season.
"Tyler, Jason and Mitch are all solid safety type players," Miller said. "Jordan plays the corner quite well and with a lot of confidence, and Richard and Josh both have a lot of upside."
The secondary should benefit by a defensive line that should provide plenty of pressure to the opposing team's quarterbacks this season. Returning to the line are sophomore edge players Josh Gordon (Bradenton, Fla./Southeast) and Sam Boyd (Delray Beach, Fla./American Heritage), along with senior interior linemen Dane Perlick (Oakfield, Wis./Winnebago Lutheran) and Jake Zautner (Sun Prairie, Wis./Sun Prairie) and sophomore Rick Melum (Iola, Wis./Iola-Scandinavia).
"Josh and Sam are two players who will provide plenty of pressure this season," Miller said. "We also have several stout, tough guys on the inside that will create a nice blend on the defensive line."
Sophomore Brett Youngbeck (Brown Deer, Wis./Brown Deer) returns as the team's kicker this season after connecting on 32-of-37 PATs a season ago.
"We're very excited to have Brett back this season," Miller said. "He is a terrific athlete and a guy who didn't start kicking until about a week into camp last season."
Miller also noted that several freshmen should come in and compete for the kicking job and expects to see healthy competition at that position.
The Warriors also return several key players in the return game, highlighted by Tucker and Turnquist. Both players show an incredible burst of speed and Miller expects to see big things from in the return game this season.
"Donavin and Travis both have great speed and both have the ability to change the game around in the return game," Miller said.
Wisconsin Lutheran kicks off the 2012 campaign Saturday, September 1 when it travels to face Ripon in a non-conference game. The Warriors' first home game is scheduled for a week later against Olivet. WLC begins NAC play September 29 as it hosts Lakeland on Homecoming at Raabe Stadium.