Pressure is an unquantifiable measure in sports, tossed around loosely to describe those rare atmospheres of a forthcoming big moment. But on the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater football team, players insist the pressure to perform at a high level never really dissipates. This is Whitewater, after all, where the proverbial target on the team’s back approaches Herculean status with every national championship game appearance. So the importance of every moment, every game is magnified beyond comparison.
The formula goes like this: Success breeds expectations and therefore pressure to meet those expectations with more success than before. Yet at some point, it becomes virtually impossible to continue on that arc of prosperity.
Last year, the Warhawks discovered what happens when a team finally regresses toward the mean.
Whitewater had played into December every year since 2005, a 15-game run to the Division III national championship for seven straight seasons — which included winning the last three titles. In 2012, they were done in mid-November after just 10 games, 7-3 and without a playoff berth.
On top of that, Whitewater’s 46-game winning streak over four seasons came to a crushing end early in the season, shy of capturing an NCAA record. The streak ranks fourth all-time in NCAA football history, trailing Mount Union’s 55- and 54-game winning streaks, each in the last two decades, and the University of Oklahoma’s 47-game streak from 1953-57.
“We’ve always talked about focusing on the process of getting better,” Whitewater football coach Lance Leipold said. “But at the same time looking back at what was happening, I think there were a lot of extras, pressure or whatever. There were a lot of things that were hanging around our guys about having to maintain perfection and understanding that you’re going to get someone’s best shot all the time. Trying to match that on a consistent basis is something that’s difficult.”
Certainly, the 2012 season was unlike any in recent memory at Whitewater. The key now is to make sure it remains an aberration as the 2013 season approaches.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Warhawks linebacker Cole Klotz said. “Very humbling. When you win that many games in a row, you get to a point where you’re kind of expecting to win. When you go to a 7-3 season, it definitely humbles you realizing that you’re not just given victories.”
Klotz said players have used last season as a motivating factor during the offseason. He admitted they spent the first week in a daze, unaccustomed to being finished in November. By Week 2, however, they were back to the grind of conditioning and weightlifting.
The offseason hasn’t been without changes. Andy Kotelnicki will take over as offensive coordinator for Steve Dinkel, who was with the program since 2001. The Warhawks also hired Alan Hensell to serve as the team’s wide receivers coach.
Quarterback Matt Behrendt said he anticipated significant changes offensively once fall practices officially begin on Aug. 17. And perhaps it will be a good thing considering the dip the Warhawks took on offense last season.
Whitewater’s scoring offense decreased by nearly 10 points, down to 24.7 points per game, and ranked 125th out of 239 teams in 2012. The Warhawks ranked 37th in the country the previous season at 34.33 points per game.
“I definitely think we’re going to come in with a different approach,” Behrendt said. “We have a new offensive coordinator. We have a lot of playmakers. I think we have the best receivers in the nation. No doubt. We’re going to switch things up a little bit, probably go a little more high-tempo than we have been in the past.”
Behrendt, Klotz and wide receiver Tyler Huber have been named Whitewater’s co-captains this season. Behrendt, a junior, earned the starting job midway through last season and threw for 775 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions. But he also didn’t have Huber, a first-team all-conference player in 2011, who suffered a season-ending injury after two games last season. Running back Ryan Givens also returns from injury and is expected to be a key contributor.
Leipold said he was particularly intrigued by Whitewater’s receiving core, which returns the bulk of its playmakers. Leading returning receiver Steve Morris (455 yards, three touchdowns) is back for his senior season, as is No. 2 wideout Zach Howard. Jake Kumerow and Joe Wirth, who ranked third and fourth in receiving yards last season, also return.
Klotz, a second-team all-conference pick last season, will anchor a defense that ranked sixth in Division III in total defense (241.5 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (10.2) points. In addition to Klotz, Whitewater returns its other starting linebackers Kyle Wismer and Ryan Cortez.
Whitewater is likely to enter 2013 in an unfamiliar position in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference — as an underdog. The Warhawks lost consecutive games last season to UW-Oshkosh and UW-Stevens Point, which knocked them out of the conference race. Oshkosh is the defending league champion and reached the D-III national semifinals.
“I don’t think we’re the favorite to win the league,” Leipold said. “Those other schools that either defeated us or played well are probably considered favorites.”
Leipold and his players say they have the pieces necessary to compete for another conference championship and return to the national title game. But they will begin the season in a far different place, with a winning streak that stands at just two games.
In some respects, the pressure at Whitewater has finally decreased this season. The Warhawks, of course, want to find a way to get it back.
“After last year, I really think teams in our conference are looking at us and thinking they can really have a chance of beating us,” Behrendt said. “We have to prove ourselves again to be the best in the conference.”