Above photo courtesy of the Wisconsin-Whitewater Athletics Department
BELTON- Since its first NCAA playoff appearance in 2004, the UMHB football team has faced a range of opponents. Teams such as Linfield College, from the pacific northwest, Redlands, located on the California coast, and now-defunct Wesley College from the northeast. Even within the 2021 run to the Stagg Bowl, UMHB faced opponents from four different states and five different conferences. But throughout their postseason duels in November and December in recent years, the Crusaders have battled one opponent on a seemingly regular basis: Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Last winter, with temperatures in the low-20s, the Cru defeated the Warhawks on their home field, 24-7, advancing to the national title game. In 2019, it was UW-W who ventured to Belton and knocked UMHB out of the playoffs in the quarterfinal round. And the year prior, the Crusaders gained a 17-0 halftime lead and reached the Stagg Bowl for the third straight year, beating UW-W 31-14 in Belton. From 2007 to the present day, the postseason rivals have faced off six times in the playoffs.
But just twice have they met during the regular season, and both ended with wins for the Warhawks in 2006 and 2007. So when the Crusaders take the field some 1,104 miles from Crusader Stadium in Whitewater on Sept. 10, they will be aiming to defeat the Warhawks for the first time ever in the regular season.
And the matchup is expected to live up to the hype, with UMHB entering the season ranked No. 1 and UW-W just behind, at No. 4. Like UMHB, the Warhawks open the season a week prior against a highly-ranked opponent, traveling to No. 5 St. John’s for a marquee matchup on Sept. 3. It is incredibly rare to have matchups like these play out in the non-conference portion of the regular season schedule.
As UW-W head coach Kevin Bullis told True To The Cru, he was seeking “regional” games, but as the spring continued to pass, and few teams expressed any interest in facing the Warhawks, the idea of consecutive top 10 matchups to open the year came into view.
“The best learning games we’ve had in recent years have been against Mary Hardin-Baylor and Saint John’s,” Bullis said recently. “I’m excited. We’ll know a lot about ourselves after those first two weeks. There is no doubt about it.”
The Warhawks compete in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, considered by many to be one of the nation’s toughest conferences. Think the SEC, but at the D-III level. Four WIAC teams open the year in the Top 25, with a fifth receiving votes. When you consider that the conference is composed of eight programs, that is a notable number. Half of the conference is amongst the nation’s 25 best teams.
“[Playing games against UMHB and St. Johns] is great preparation for getting into our conferences,” Bullis noted. “We have to be ready every Saturday, and this is going to be great development for all of our teams, learning our strengths and our weaknesses.”
There will be a lot to learn about this Whitewater team as the 2022 campaign rolls out. The Warhawks lost their quarterback, Max Meylor, top running back, Alex Peete, leading wide receiver, Ryan Wisniewski, and defensive end Mackenzie Balanganayi, who had 6.5 sacks last year. This creates several situations in which new starters will step into critical roles, but Bullis is not concerned in the slightest. The way his program is structured, like so many of the nation’s top 10 teams, begins with development as freshmen, so they can start as seniors.
“It’s all about the development of the culture of your program,” Bullis said. “These programs have shown a tradition of developing their players. That’s an everyday thing. The development starts the day those kids walk into fall camp.”
The Warhawks do retain some key components of their deep postseason run in 2021, such as wide receiver Tyler Holte, who will be in his fifth season. He had 49 catches for 792 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. Defensively, leading tackler Kyle Koelblinger has also returned for his sophomore year. Linebacker Ryan Liszka was named a D3football.com Preseason All-America last week. But from the returning starters to the 18-year old freshmen, Bullis’ daily approach is the same: improve each player individually, and together they will form a championship-winning unit.
“The thing that does change each year is your chemistry,” Bullis said. “That is something that doesn’t just happen in fall camp. It happens over the course of the entire season. There’s a constant state of growth of your chemistry, of your strengths and weaknesses.
“Even though [we lost some key parts of last year’s team], it’s not like we’re changing to a whole new style of offense. But we will be a different team. You’re never the same team that you were the year before.”
As he looks back on 2021, at a team that went 13-1, 7-0 in WIAC play, a few things stick out. One was the progression of the defense, whose youth did not hamper it from leading the WIAC in fewest yards allowed per game (272.2). Another was the chemistry formed between Meylor and his receivers, which led to a league-high 39 passing touchdowns.
“I was really pleased last year with the development of our defense. We were a young defense and we knew it would be a key piece coming into the year. The chemistry of Max [Meylor] and those wide receivers last year was beautiful, because Max’s previous season, in 2019, he didn’t start until the playoff game. With quarterbacks and wide receivers, it’s all about timing, and they have to know each other individually well.
“You mentioned Alex Peete. We ask ourselves, ‘What can we get Alex Peete better at?’ You let them go out there and do their thing, but you’re helping them daily. If you can improve your individual players every day, that’s when you see the end result on a Saturday, when all those little pieces come together.”
Consistent defense will be crucial in UW-W’s bid to slow the potent UMHB offense in week two. And Bullis is confident he has the personnel to do so. The young defensive line in 2021, is much more experienced now in 2022, and should compete well in the trenches against the Crusader offensive line.
“I’m excited about our D-line,” Bullis said. “They really progressed well last year, and it will be kind of a veteran group. In general, I’m excited about our defense because there were a number of guys who were starting their first college game on that defense a year ago. Taking that next step is going to be vital.”
As he ended his call with True To The Cru, Bullis added one more point, highlighting a departure, not from his own program, but that of a program 1,104 miles away.
“I do want to say, it’s really been an honor, and a pleasure, to have gotten to know Coach Fredenburg. What an outstanding person and amazing coach. I hope he makes the trip up here, because he’s a guy that I consider a friend. It’s an honor to call him that.”