When North Central lost its only regular season game to Wheaton, the Cardinals weren’t dejected or discouraged.

Senior quarterback Broc Rutter said the importance of finishing drives, staying together and regrouping to finish the season strong.

When UW-Whitewater lost its only regular season game to UW-Oshkosh, senior safety Nate Tranel said the importance of finishing plays, paying attention to details and continuing to stay dedicated to improvement were the most important things for the Warhawks.

If the Cardinals and Warhawks had fallen off after the setbacks, the reactions to the losses could be characterized as cliche coaches’ speak. Because both teams regrouped and made a run to the Stagg Bowl, the messaging is interpreted as disciplined dedication to perseverance.

That’s what will be on display when North Central and UW-Whitewater face off in the Stagg Bowl at 7 p.m. today in Shenandoah, Texas.

The Warhawks will need to remain disciplined to defeat the high-powered offense which led North Central to a 13-1 record and a second-place finish in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin behind Wheaton, which lost to St. John’s in the third round. The Cardinals have scored at least 42 points in 12 of their 14 games including a 45-14 victory over Muhlenberg in the semifinals and a 59-52 victory over Mount Union in the second round.

Sophomore running back Ethan Greenfield has 259 carries for 2,031 yards and 26 touchdowns this season. Rutter has completed 54 touchdown passes and averages almost 15 yards per completion. He is second in the nation in passing yards behind St. John’s quarterback Jackson Erdmann.

Junior Andrew Kamienski has caught 124 passes for 1,882 yards and 30 touchdowns. Kamienski doubles as a possession threat and a vertical speed threat. Blake Williams is a 6-foot-4 junior receiver who was one of two players to catch six touchdown passes.

The Thorne legacy

In 2002, John Thorne, the father of current head coach Jeff Thorne, became head coach at North Central College. Jeff Thorne said his father’s goal was to show that the basic fundamentals to his success as a high school coach would translate to the collegiate level.

John Thorne coached at Wheaton Warrenville South, which is a stone’s throw north of Chicago suburb Naperville. Thorne won four high school football state championships. He was inducted into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2002.

Jeff took over for John Thorne as head coach in 2015. John compiled a 118-30 record in 12 seasons.

“We’re extremely excited to be headed to our first Stagg Bowl in program history,” said Jeff Thorne after defeating Muhlenberg on Saturday. “In 2002, my dad took this program over and he had this dream; to win a national championship. … His friends all told him, ‘What are you doing taking the North Central job? It’s a graveyard, you can’t win there.’

“He said, ‘I want to take our philosophy that I have in high school and plug it into a college program and I think it works. I think if you put the well-being of young men first,’ this is my father talking, ‘and you help them learn what manhood looks like and you teach those lessons, that you can win football games.’”

Beesley the ball hawk

As a freshman, North Central junior Jake Beesley was rostered as a wide receiver. He caught 11 catches for 264 yards and two touchdowns.

Sensing that they had adequate depth in the receiver room, the Cardinals moved Beesley to the defensive side of the ball his sophomore and junior seasons.

“We’re constantly looking at our personnel in terms of getting our best 22 on the field as much as we can,” Jeff Thorne said. “Jake was in a situation where he was getting snaps on offense, but we thought we could get him into a bigger role on the defensive side.

“A kid with his athleticism and size—he’s an extremely gifted athlete—is someone you want on the field as much as you can.”

Beesley and fellow North Central cornerback Braden Lindmark are each 6-foot-3, which is an effort to disrupt wide receivers at the line of scrimmage.

‘Gonzo’ finds groove

The UW-Whitewater kicking game has been a bit of an enigma this season. Junior Wojciech “Gonzo” Gasienica started the season 3-for-12. There were blocks mixed in and a few poor snaps that disrupted placement for Gasienica.

Bullis stuck with him, continued to give him chances and now the junior kicker is a perfect 8-for-8 in the playoffs. Going back to the regular season, Gasienica has made 13 of his last 14.

“I just worried about myself (early in the season),” Gasienica said. “I trust Cooper, Andy Cooper is probably the best holder in D-I, D-II or D-III no matter where it is. I know he’s going to get the hold down. I know (Aaron) Sturdevant is going to get a great snap, I don’t worry about that anymore.”

Stagg Bowl history

  • The seventh-ranked Warhawks are playing for their seventh Stagg Bowl title and first since the Bullis era started in 2015. The fifth-ranked Cardinals are playing in their first Stagg Bowl.
  • UW-Whitewater and North Central each were at-large selections into the playoffs.
  • UW-Whitewater shared the WIAC title with UW-Oshkosh and North Central took second place in the CCIW behind Wheaton.