|Playing into December is one way to erase the bad taste of consecutive two-loss seasons.
Photo by Matt McClure, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
Wheaton won 16 games over the past two seasons — and the Thunder were sick of it.
While most programs would be delighted to post a winning percentage of .800, the Thunder were determined to not let that happen again.
“For the past two years, we’ve come up one or two games short. We’ve had opportunities we wish we could have had back. Realizing the pain of missing playoffs and conference titles by one or two plays is tough,” said senior offensive lineman Jake Hibben. “Most programs would love to go 8-2, but 8-2 feels like we’re falling short and we hated that feeling of losing. This offseason, we were led by captains who really pushed us as a team to go one more step further.”
The goals remained modest, but monumental.
|Jake Hibben came into his senior season with 15 starts already under his belt at center.
Photo by Matt McClure, d3photography.com
First, win the Little Brass Bell. That’s just one regular season victory, but it means so much more to Wheaton.
The rivalry game almost always has conference championship implications. That leads into the second goal, which is to win the CCIW. That is something the Thunder do not take for granted.
When Patrick O’Connell transferred to Wheaton from Division I Ball State, he joined a program coming off of consecutive CCIW championships. It took a long four years to get the Thunder back to that pinnacle.
“A lot of it is the ownership that our guys have taken. It started when last season ended. Guys were fed up. We came here to win conference titles and play at a high level, and we weren’t doing that,” said the senior defensive lineman. “Guys took ownership at a new level. It’s a whole different team in terms of grittiness, toughness, and willingness to do the things that nobody wants to do.”
The defense, best in nation allowing just 186.7 yards and 6.8 points per game, is fueled by transfers. Dallas McRae, another defensive lineman, joined the program in 2017, a year after O’Connell did. This year, linebacker Wyatt Lee made an immediate impact in his first season with the Thunder after leading D-III in tackles per game as a freshman at Lawrence in 2018.
The unit works in harmony, allowing just 57.6 rushing yards (No. 3 in the nation) and 129.6 passing yards (No. 4) per game. That forces plenty of third downs, and the Thunder allow opponents to convert just 23.7 percent of those. Knowing that they can trust their teammates allows each Thunder defender to commit maximum effort to doing his job on every snap.
“You’re not worried about being conservative,” said O’Connell. “We have real good athletes in the back half and we have such good discipline. We can play within ourselves and our responsibility.”
That translates to every position on the field. No player in a Wheaton uniform is concerned about what his teammate is doing on any given play.
“When you have confidence and trust the guy next to you and his buy-in and his love and his unselfishness and you’ve bought in and dyed to yourself, you play with confidence,” said head coach Mike Swider. “They don’t doubt the buy-in of anybody on this team. That’s why they’re a confident group.”
The seniors set the tone for this season, determined to avoid another postseason as spectators. Back-to-back 8-2 seasons snapped a string of three consecutive playoff appearances.
“There’s a little chip on our shoulder. There’s been frustration these last few years that these players felt,” said Swider. “We had some crushing losses in there that were frustrating. These kids decided not to let that happen again.”
That renewed sense of purpose led to more internal competition and motivation in the weight room and on the practice field.
“The accountability that comes from teammates is awesome, the willingness to encourage each other when we’re doing well and get on each other when we need it,” said O’Connell. “I get to go against a guy in Clay Wagner in practice, a really good, physical, gritty football player. He doesn’t hold off in practice. That’s really good for us.”
“From the weight room, to morning runs, to different workouts, everything was a competition within our team. It was a competition to see how we can all become the best we can be together,” said Hibben. “It wasn’t about being better than the guy you’re competing with, it was about helping each other realize our potential.”
The wide receivers and defensive backs battled for every ball in the air, the linebackers made the running backs fight for every yard, and the competition up front was a war. The offensive and defensive lines have been the heart of this season’s success, and their battles in fall camp were legendary.
“Training camp is violent, not in a bad way, but that’s two big rhinoceroses and dinosaurs colliding every day in practice,” said Swider. “It was healthy competition that really raised the level of this team.”
In the quarterfinals, the defense will be tested by reigning Gagliardi Trophy winner Jackson Erdmann and the St. John’s offense. Fortunately for the Thunder, they have been tested by similar quarterbacks already this season. They held North Central and Broc Rutter to 4.8 yards per play and 21 points in the Little Brass Bell victory.
“Having played on a big stage against a great quarterback really prepares us for the moment. You put in so much work and preparation every week for every Saturday, no matter who you’re playing,” said O’Connell. “Our team theme this year is to pound the rock. We love the idea of just pounding away on defense until you get to that breaking point where the other quarterback starts seeing ghosts.”
Although the historic defense garners most of the headlines, the offense is not to be overlooked. Wheaton placed three offensive players on the all-CCIW first team and ranks in the top ten in the nation in total offense and scoring offense.
“We have the number one defense for a reason. It’s good to battle against some of the best guys in D-III day in and day out,” said Hibben. “They make us better from a technical standpoint. It’s like the Bible says, Iron sharpens iron.”
The hunger and selflessness of the 2019 Wheaton Thunder is evidenced by the five players who returned as fifth-year seniors. They didn’t come back to finish as 8-2 conference runners up again. The rest of the team followed their lead.
“What’s distinctive about this group is that they are a really, really confident group of kids. They are a quiet group and they’ve put in some work and they set their sights on this goal of making a run and then they put in the work. They have died to themselves and they are mission-conscious,” said Swider. “There’s no concern about who’s making the plays; there’s only one thing that matters to them and that’s winning games. They are confident in each other. They don’t want to let each other down.
“When you really love someone, you don’t want to let them down. The greatest warriors fight not for what’s in front of them, but for their brother next to them.”