Our Views: UW-W athletics are worth celebrating

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Just when you think UW-Whitewater has racked up every conceivable athletic feat, the Warhawks go one step further.

When UW-W's baseball team won the Division III World Series on Tuesday, it marked the first time any university at any level has won national championships in the three major sports—football, men's basketball and baseball—in the same academic year. Only two schools previously won national football and men's basketball crowns in the same year. Florida did it in 2006-07 and—you guessed it—Whitewater in 2011-12.

Webster's should add a reference to UW-W football in its “dynasty” definition. Coach Lance Leipold has compiled an amazing 94-6 record, including a 29-1 mark in postseason play, in winning five national titles in seven seasons.

Basketball coach Pat Miller, a Janesville Craig grad who was co-captain of UW-W's 1989 national championship team, directed the Warhawk men to their second national title in three seasons this year. Miller has a 291-83 record in 13 seasons.

Now comes John Vodenlich and his baseball team, which slammed the door on Emory. The unheralded Cinderella team from Atlanta slugged its way past four teams ranked in the top 12 and eliminated defending national champion Linfield to enter Tuesday's title game in Grand Chute. Undaunted, Whitewater prevailed, 7-0, behind senior right-hander Scott Plaza, named the tournament's most outstanding player.

Whitewater achieved this Triple Crown with its athletic director's job in flux. It shows an athletic director tackles no quarterbacks, grabs no rebounds or bangs no baseballs. Still, Paul Plinske pushed the Warhawks to new heights in nine seasons. He helped raise more than $12 million to upgrade facilities, including $8 million to renovate the outdoor athletic complex. Plinske, however, left last August for the Division II University of Nebraska at Kearney. Amy Edmonds served as interim athletic director this year before Chancellor Richard Telfer tapped her as Plinske's permanent replacement this week.

Whitewater combines quality coaches with stability in a culture where teams and coaches support each other. Plinske hired Leipold, but Miller and Vodenlich predate him. Vodenlich, a former Warhawk All-American catcher, has coached 11 seasons and topped the 400-victory mark in Grand Chute.

Rising to the top in Division III is no small achievement. The division has 449 schools and is the largest of the three in the NCAA. Not all schools compete in all sports, but to qualify, a school must field at least 10 teams.

These quality athletes were deemed not good enough to earn scholarships. They compete for their love of the game.

Whitewater's historic achievement is getting nationwide publicity. If this little city wasn't on the national map before, it is today. With one of the nation's best business schools, and many athletes already studying business, Whitewater could lure even more quality out-of-state athletes. That translates into a better brand of students, a diversified culture and more  tuition revenue. Some nonresident athletes might make Wisconsin their home and tap UW-W's entrepreneurial programs to start businesses and create jobs.

Don't forget, these three sports aren't the only achievers. The UW-W women's gymnastics team won its third straight national championship in March. The men's and women's wheelchair basketball teams also won national titles, though the NCAA doesn't sanction that sport. Last weekend, the Warhawk women placed third in the national softball championship.

Warhawk athletics are cause for celebration across southern Wisconsin.

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