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Smallest school still trying to build team

More news about: Finlandia
Finlandia players hold their helmets in the air on a gloomy, overcast day.
Despite annual adversity, Finlandia's football program has stuck it out.
Finlandia athletics photo
 

By Brian Lester
D3sports.com

Wilson Spreier is from Colorado. Some will wonder why he chose to play college football at a school nearly 1,300 miles away from home, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Not to mention wondering why a player would choose to continue his athletic career at a relatively new program that has yet to win consistently and has endured constant roster turnover in its short life.

Spreier has his reasons, and much to the surprise of outsiders, the junior offensive lineman doesn’t regret his decision.

“I was on a recruiting website and coach Travis (Wiltzius) started talking to me and was really interested,” Spreier said. “He said if I worked hard enough, I could start. My dad and brother and I came for a visit and my dad loved the place and told me this is the place where I am going to sign. It’s been a pleasure playing football here.”

In a world where so often athletes jump ship to another program when things don’t work out, Spreier and a handful of others have stayed the course with a team that is in just its fourth season of football.

Finlandia, and the map
Finlandia University is in Hancock, Mich., up on the state's upper peninsula and miles from the rest of Division III.

It doesn’t matter that this team went through two coaching changes in this past offseason alone, or that the program is four hours from the nearest D-III school, or that there are only 49 players on the team. Without football, the enrollment at Finlandia would be less than 400. It’s the smallest school in Division III with a football program.

Spreier, the team’s starting center, isn’t bothered by the offseason coaching carousel that led to Wiltzius, an offensive line coach here when he started in 2015, being hired to take the head coaching spot. Nor is he rattled by the rugged start to the 2018 season that has seen the Lions fall 31-3 to Concordia (Wis.) and 70-0 to Ripon.

He will instead tell you how much he loves the enthusiasm and energy of the coaching staff and that this team, despite the adversity it has endured in winning just five games since 2015, never stops pushing forward, ignoring every odd stacked against it.

“We want to raise our bar and keep pushing,” Spreier said. “We have everything here to succeed. We just have to open it up and do better than what we have been doing. We’ll get there. We’re working hard as a team, pushing each other to get better and the coaches are pushing us, too.”

Wiltzius has a motto at Finlandia, one defined by toughness and perseverance.

“My team motto is swing the hammer, and that’s what we do,” Wiltzius said. “We are constantly grinding to get better. When things don’t go how we planned, how are we going to respond? We want guys to believe and really strive to get through the hard times. It’s about grit, determination and toughness.”

Wiltzius is the right man for this job. He is an Upper Peninsula native and understands hard work does indeed pay off.

This is a coach who started out as the student manager for the Central Michigan football team and worked his way up to offensive intern and eventually to offensive quality control. In 2014, he was a graduate assistant on the Chippewas’ staff.

He learned about the job at Finlandia through a couple of coaches on the CMU staff. It was a no-brainer to take advantage of it.

“I saw it as an opportunity to give back to my heritage in the U.P. I really believe in D-III football up here. Being a guy from here, I know what it’s like to be under-recruited. It’s hard for players to get looks from schools down state and in Wisconsin.”

Attracting recruits to Finlandia is a challenge in itself. The school has changed its recruiting approach under Wiltzius, who has practically doubled the size of the roster this season.

“We have made sure we are getting kids who want to come here, who want to persist and play college athletics and get an education,” Wiltzius said. “That’s been important to me. Football teaches you a lot of life-long lessons and I believe in teaching those to the fullest, to help these guys become great young men and have success after football.”

Selling the program to recruits can be challenging but Wiltzius believes Finlandia has a lot to offer.

“We are in a beautiful area and we offer great programs academically,” Wiltzius said. “We got new locker rooms in 2016 and our weight room was brand new in 2015. It’s a Division I weight room at a D-III school. It’s hard to get kids up here, but when we do, they see what we have to offer and want to be a part of it.”

The chance to be a part of something new is an appeal as well, with Wiltzius reminding players that they have a chance to lay the foundation for the future success of the program.

And while most schools at the Division III level typically have 100 or more on the roster, the smaller roster size of the Lions means more opportunities to see the field.

“We are at 50 kids and every one of them gets used in some capacity on this team. And even when we grow, every player is still going to have a role on this football team.”

Spreier admits it’s been tough dealing with roster turnovers, watching teammates come and go, but he knows that the players who are here are ones who want to be.

“It’s hard to keep kids because we are a newer program, but the kids that do stay are the kids who put in the hard work and are dedicated to helping us succeed,” Spreier said.

Only six on the roster are seniors and their presence has been invaluable to the program.

“My hat goes off to those guys. They’ve had tough sledding here and have stuck it out. I have nothing but admiration for those guys,” Wiltzius said.

Finlandia played only six games last year, two against club teams. This year, the Lions are in a conference, competing in the MIAA, and that’s a big deal.

“When I found out we had 10 games I started telling everybody,” Spreier said. “I told all of my family. It’s great. We finally get to play a full schedule and compete for a championship.”

And though competing for a championship will take time, Wiltzius calls the move to the conference a huge honor. It’s a big step forward for a program still trying to get its footing in the Division III landscape, and Wiltzius reminds his players that building a successful program won’t happen overnight.

“I tell guys don’t expect the microwave effect. This is a process,” Wiltzius said. “Every week I challenge the kids to get better athletically, academically, socially and emotionally. I want them to continue to rise. When you do the little things right, big things happen, and the work we do now will be beneficial in the long run for the success of our program.”

Spreier is on board with that. And as he’s said before, he has no regrets. He’s glad he’s still here.

“I’m very proud that I’ve stuck around. I’ve enjoyed it,” Spreier said. “Putting in the work and grinding it out, it’s the best feeling ever. We keep improving and that’s a great feeling.”

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