It takes a special team to reach an NCAA national championship game.
In winning six Division III football titles since 2007, UW-Whitewater has had its fair share of special groups.
Typically they’ve been led by a special player or two helping to post impressive statistics along the way.
Think Justin Beaver rushing for nearly 2,500 yards and winning the Gagliardi Trophy—DIII’s Heisman—when the Warhawks won their first title in 2007. Or Levell Coppage racking up nearly 7,800 yards and helping the Warhawks win championships in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
Think NFL-type talents like current Packers wide receiver Jake Kumerow or former quarterbacks Matt Blanchard and Matt Behrendt, who got tryouts at football’s highest level.
Even last year, when UW-W reached the national semifinals, it had a Gagliardi semifinalist in Harry Henschler and an offensive lineman in Nate Trewyn currently in the NFL.
This year’s Warhawks have neither the big-name standout nor the gaudy numbers in the DIII rankings. And yet here they are, back in the national semifinals and hosting St. John’s (Minnesota) at 2 p.m. Saturday with a trip to the Stagg Bowl on the line.
“To me, we have a well-rounded team,” UW-Whitewater head coach Kevin Bullis said. “That’s the thing that’s different from those teams. We have a resounding amount of talent.”
Bullis first pointed to the running back position to illustrate his point, but also mentioned the receivers, offensive line and defense as a whole.
The Warhawks don’t have a Beaver or Coppage—a running back who is rewriting the program’s record books. But Alex Peete was a preseason all-American, and Bullis and his staff have had the luxury of leaning on multiple standouts.
Peete needs 54 yards Saturday to reach 1,000 and has scored 13 touchdowns. And Jarrod Ware and Ronny Ponick have combined to rush for 1,055 yards and 10 more scores.
“From the start of the season, before we knew how far we’d take this, there was just a chemistry we had and a trust we had in our coaches, and that plays a huge role in great teams,” Ware said.
“What’s great about this school is we always have a next-man-up mentality. We know everybody wants to play, so we practice and groom those younger guys for their moment.”
Yet the Warhawks’ rushing offense ranks just 46th in Division III. And they drop to No. 110 when looking at total offense.
They have utilized two quarterbacks—due to injury or otherwise—that have thrown for a combined 2,309 yards with 21 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.
Not exactly eye-popping figures, but the Warhawks are finding ways to score, especially in the postseason, where they’ve scored 102 points in three games.
Defensively, the Warhawks’ story is similar.
Defensive back Brady Grayvold posted nine interceptions one year and eight the next when the Warhawks won national championships in 2013 and 2014.
This year’s UW-W team certainly has capable playmakers but not with those kinds of numbers. And the player that closest fits that model—Mackenzie Balanganayi, who has nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss and was named West Region defensive player of the year this week—has missed most of the postseason due to injury.
But Bullis said he thinks this year’s defensive unit resembles many of the national championship-caliber defenses in Whitewater from years past. And, unlike the offense, some statistics do back that up, as the Warhawks rank 20th in total defense.
“You’ve got 11 guys that are just good playing football together,” linebacker Jacob Erbs said. “There’s not guys that are always going to be standouts every game, but everyone is doing their job.
“Mark (McGrath) had three picks in one game. Kaleb Kaminski (had) two picks in level two of the playoffs. Week-to-week, people are stepping up.”
Erbs and Ware also both pointed to a tight-knit locker room as a big reason for the Warhawks’ run.
“Resilience,” Erbs said when asked what makes this year’s team special. “Last year, when we went down to Mary Hardin-Baylor and we lost, every guy that was in that locker room that was coming back this year, everyone was saying, ‘We’re coming back here.’
“Our goal was to go back down to Mary Hardin and play them again. That happened. Different outcome; we won the game. And now it’s just we’ve got to win another one.”
The Warhawks’ run might not be considered all that flashy, but win another game and they will be back at the Stagg Bowl for the 10th time in the past 15 years and first since 2014.
And that would be special enough.