The names Max Meylor and Wojciech Gasienica weren’t mentioned too often at UW-Whitewater’s media day last summer.
The unlikely duo are now remembered fondly after helping Whitewater outlast St. John’s 35-32 in a heart-pounding NCAA Division III semifinal battle at Perkins Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Gasienica kicked four field goals, including the go-ahead 37-yard field goal with 5:33 left. Meylor added a 38-yard touchdown run and threw for another to propel Whitewater to the Stagg Bowl against North Central (Illinois). The Cardinals, who knocked off Mount Union in the second round, dominated Muhlenberg (Pennsylvania) 45-14 in the other semifinal.
The Warhawks are looking to win their first national championship since 2014 when they won their sixth title in eight years under coach Lance Leipold.
“To be part of helping build and pass that tradition on is what to me is exciting,” said Bullis, who took over in 2015 after Leipold became head coach at Division I Buffalo. “To have a chance to build a staff in 2015 is a long process, and to see the staff and team grow is hard to put into words. It’s very exciting and fulfilling.”
The victory was also fulfilling for Gasienica, who gained redemption after a rough regular season with a clutch kick into a stiff wind to deliver the decisive score.
“I try to say every kick is the same, but it’s a little easier said than done,” Gasienica said. “I try to kick the ball a little bit lower to not catch the wind.”
Gasienica’s kick didn’t seem like it would hold up with St. John’s quarterback Jackson Erdmann getting the ball at the Johnnies’ 42 with two minutes left.
Erdmann consistently pierced the Warhawk defense with 342 yards and a touchdown. But on the first play of the drive, Warhawk linebacker Matt Anderson ripped the ball out of running back Kai Barber’s arms on a five-yard pass at the 47 to strike the decisive blow.
“I saw the ball and went to hit it down and try to tackle him at the same time,” Anderson said of his decisive turnover. “Aall of a sudden I felt the ball in my chest, and to the best of my abilities, tried to rip it out of his hands.
“And it ended up in both of my hands, and I just got down because I knew my offense could just finish it from there.”
Meylor fittingly got to run the victory formation after stunning the Johnnies’ defense with a 38-yard touchdown run to put Whitewater up 32-24 early in the fourth quarter.
“They didn’t have a spy on me, so when I put my foot in the ground, I could see the touchdown,” Meylor said. “I could either hand off or run or even throw, but I saw green grass right in front of me.”
One of Meylor’s few mistakes came later in the quarter when he threw an interception at the Warhawk 23. Six plays later, Barber scored from a yard out. Erdmann hit Ravi Alston on the two-point conversion to tie the game at 32.
Meylor then led the team on an 11-play, 45-yard drive, capped by Gasienica’s kick to reclaim the lead for good.
“We figured it would be this kind of game that could get down to a couple plays here or there,” St. John’s coach Gary Fasching said. “They just made a couple more plays that we did.”
Whitewater looks to make more plays to win another championship.
WHITEWATER 35, ST. JOHN’S 32
St. John’s 7 14 3 8—32
Whitewater 5 17 3 10—35
Scoring summary: SJ—Henry Trost, 4 run (Colin Kummer kick). W—FG, Wojciech Gasienica, 31. W—Team safety. W—FG, Gasienica, 27. SJ—Trost, 1 run (Kummer kick). W—Ryan Wisniewski, 4 run (Gasienica kick). SJ—Ravi Alston, 7 pass from Jackson Erdmann (Kummer kick). W—Derek Kumerow, 6 pass from Max Meylor (Gasienica kick). SJ—FG, Kummer, 25. W—FG, Gasienica, 22. W—Meylor, 38 run (Gasienica kick). SJ—Kai Barber, 1 run (Alston pass from Erdmann). W—FG, Gasienica, 37.
Statistics: First downs—SJ 23 (3 rushing, 20 passing), W 16 (8 rushing, 8 passing). Rushing—SJ 25-21, W 38-209. Yards passing—SJ 342, W 188. Passes—SJ 50-29-1, W 34-15-2. Fumbles—SJ 1-1, W 0-0. Penalties—SJ 3-20, W 7-35.
Leaders: Rushing—Henry Trost (SJ) 6-18; Max Meylor (W) 6-85, Alex Peete (W) 11-44, Ronny Ponick (W) 10-43. Receiving—Ravi Alston (SJ) 11-143; Ryan Wisniewski (W) 4-96, Derek Kumerow (W) 5-45. Passing—Jackson Erdmann (SJ) 50-29-1, 342 yards; Max Meylor (W) 34-15-2, 188 yards.