WHITEWATER

When you’re part of the UW-Whitewater football program, high expectations come with the territory.

And even after coach Kevin Bullis’ Warhawks were forced to sit in fallow during the 2020 season—all due to the COVID-19 pandemic—the Warhawks’ 2021 edition prepares for action under a familiar feeling of lofty expectations and high excitement.

The Warhawks are ranked among the top five in three separate preseason polls: Second in Lindy’s Sports Division III Preseason Top 25 and fourth in both the D3football.com Preseason Top 25 and the College Football America Yearbook’s 2021 Division III Preseason Top 30.

The defending national runner-up Warhawks reached the 2019 Stagg Bowl (the NCAA Division III national championship game) for the 10th time in program history. North Central College of Naperville, Illinois, beat the Warhawks, 41-14.

In 2019, UW-Whitewater also shared the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship, the program’s 37th all-time, and finished 2019 with a 13-2 record, including a 6-1 mark in league play.

Senior running back Ryan Ponick, one of the Warhawks’ five captains, said he and his teammates can’t wait to get on the field after last year’s pandemic-forced layoff.

“We’re excited to get back out there,” Ponick said at the team’s media day earlier this week. “We’re pumped for the opportunity.”

Keeping sharp over the past year with no games to prepare for was a challenge. But according to senior receiver Ryan Wisniewski, another co-captain, it all came down to the family culture Bullis has instilled.

“You want to work hard for the guy next to you,” Wisniewski said.

For senior offensive lineman Kyle Gannon, another key concept is involved.

“Love of the game,” Gannon said. “That’s especially true for us Division III guys.”

Ponick said the Warhawks’ depth and experience will be a factor in 2021.

On defense, the Warhawks aren’t as experienced as they are on the offensive side of the ball. But senior defensive lineman Mackenzie Balanganayi said the unit he leads is ready to row its side of the boat.

“We’re loaded, stacked and ready to go,” Balanganayi said. “We’re a battle-tested group. We’re ready to play some guys wearing different-colored jerseys.”

Bullis, entering his seventh year guiding the Warhawks, said he and his staff are also more than ready to get back on the field.

“Sept. 4 is coming fast,” Bullis said. “It can’t come fast enough. … These kids are hungry. It’s been a long time.”

Despite not having a season in 2020, the Warhawks were able to get in 92 separate workouts in over the past year, mostly during the spring, Bullis said. They weren’t all full-bore sessions, Bullis said, but they all contributed to helping the Warhawks prepare for their return to the field.

“We came up with all kinds of strategies to keep our practices and meetings juiced,” Bullis said. “We didn’t have to use any of them. I’m proud of our guys.”

All three polls have a consensus top four of Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas), Mount Union (Ohio), North Central (Ill.) and UW-Whitewater. Mount Union is No. 1 in the Lindy’s and College Football America Yearbook rankings, and Mary Hardin-Baylor takes the top spot in the D3football.com Top 25.

UW-Whitewater received one first-place vote in the D3football.com poll. But Bullis said he and his team don’t pay much attention to that.

“We don’t look at the rankings,” Bullis said. “It doesn’t help us in our process. … it doesn’t help us get better.”

“But it’s fun having a target on our backs,” Bullis added. “Whomever we play, we know we’re going to get their best game.”

The Warhawks begin the 2021 campaign Saturday, Sept. 4, at home against Carthage College, a program from the same conference (College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin) as North Central.

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