UW-Whitewater: College football's titletown
WHITEWATER -- Coaches say that handling success oftentimes is tougher than swallowing losing. Apparently Lance Leipold has patented the elixir he's been selling to his University of Wisconsin-Whitewater football team.
Leipold's Warhawks have won NCAA Division III national championships in five of his seven seasons since replacing Hall of Famer Bob Berezowitz, putting them second only to the dynasty of Mount Union (Ohio), which has earned 11 trophies.
And UW-W's performance in last year's Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl was its most dominating to date. The fifth-ranked Warhawks dismantled the No. 1 Purple Raiders -- the teams have met in eight of the last nine title contests -- as junior quarterback Matt Behrendt tossed four touchdown passes to lead the 52-14 laugher and finished with a school record 40 TDs against only one interception.
“I don't feel any extra pressure,” said Behrendt, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound Illinois native. “We're not thinking about last year. We have high expectations for myself and the offense, and we have a lot of weapons back.”
Those include his favorite target, Jake Kumerow, another Illinois product who set school single-season standards with 19 scoring catches and 1,331 yards. Their jobs are easier because of another preseason All-American in blocker Lucas Skibba of Stevens Point. The Warhawks also return Milwaukee Vincent grad Jordan Ratliffe, who led the team with 1,259 yards rushing, and No. 2 receiver Justin Howard of Homestead, who hauled in 72 balls for 560 yards.
But the superlatives don't apply to the offense alone for this year's unanimous top-rated team.
UW-Whitewater, which forced 44 turnovers, has topped the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in rushing, scoring and total defense the last five years.
And defensive back Brady Grayvold of Norway, Mich., led the league with nine interceptions, returning two of them for scores. Mykael Bratchett of Hope School in Milwaukee also is back after registering a team-high eight sacks.
Another member of that unit is three-year starting cornerback Marcus McLin of Delavan-Darien, who recorded 47 tackles and two interceptions and complements Howard as a kick and punt returner.
“It's been pretty exciting and feels great to have played at such a high level,” the 5-8, 190-pound McLin said. “We expect a lot from ourselves, but we know we have to take it week by week and our first goal is winning the WIAC title. That gets us to the second season.
“As for me, I want to improve my man-to-man cover techniques … the coaches always preach about going back to fundamentals,” he said. “I've gotten stronger this offseason and want to play with more physicality.”
He'll get that chance when the Warhawks start the season with a Friday night home game Sept. 5 against Waldorf (Iowa) and then hit the road for games in Indiana and New Jersey the next two weeks. They return home to face UW-La Crosse in their WIAC opener Oct. 4.
Leipold expects eighth-ranked UW-Platteville and No. 18 UW-Oshkosh to be formidable and echoes the sentiments of his players in preparing to compete in the toughest conference in the country.
“Mike Emendorfer has done a great job at Platteville,” Leipold said. “They have a quarterback with experience and should be explosive again. Oshkosh lost two close games or else it would have been a playoff team. I think Eau Claire had a hiccup last year. It will be the same type of stuff as every year. Our league, if you get through it, you're playoff tested.”
The Warhawks have weathered those annual storms much better than their rivals under Leipold's guidance: UW-Whitewater is 94-6 overall and an unbelievable 29-1 in the postseason, while going 44-3 in the WIAC and winning six league crowns.
The team's biggest question marks are in the kicking game and at linebacker.
“I'm confident in our talent level in the kicking game, and we'll see about game production as we go along,” Leipold said. “And we've got 10 guys at linebacker, so it will be interesting who surfaces there.”
Two of the players he mentioned are sophomores Paul Foster of Janesville Craig and Jesse DeLorme of Brodhead.
Regardless of perceived strengths and weaknesses, nobody is resting, especially not Leipold.
“We've got good senior leaders who, despite playing football at such a high level, have stayed humble and worked hard,” he said. “We can't get caught up with what people are talking about, but we have had no issues with focus. Our seniors know what happened two years ago when you don't play so well.”