Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Warhawks now Division III kingpins

The losing coach wore a Mona Lisa smile as he spoke, and when he was finished, he gave two quick winks -- just a little reminder that he didn't mean these as fighting words.

But the words held some truth nonetheless.

The question he'd been asked was simple: What should we make of this? After all, Larry Kehres' Mount Union team used to own this town. The Purple Raiders had been so dominant for so long, so unstoppable in the Division III ranks, and now, on Saturday, Wisconsin-Whitewater had taken the title for the third time in four years, 31-21, at Salem Stadium..

Could it be? Were the Warhawks the new Stagg Bowl standard?

"You know what?" said Kehres, the second-winningest coach in Division III history. "They're kind of ticking me off. I might have to get myself in gear a little bit and get ready to win the next three out of four."

And you can bet that's exactly what he'll try to do -- starting this morning. And a year from now, we'll probably see him and his boys from Alliance, Ohio, back here on this same field, facing the Warhawks for the seventh straight time.

It's the only matchup these brackets seem equipped to spit out, and for good reason. These teams have the players, the coaches, the tradition. They have the race mapped out every year.

But now it's Mount Union that's chasing.

Now it's the Warhawks crashing through the line at critical moments, like senior Luke Hibner did on his spine-rattling fourth-quarter sack. Now it's the Warhawks forcing and recovering the crucial fumbles just when it seems the momentum has turned against them, like junior safety Steven McCollom did with his alert strip-and-salvage with 9:31 to play. And now it's the Warhawks setting Stagg Bowl records, like game Most Outstanding Player Levell Coppage did with his 299 rushing yards.

This would have been unthinkable only five years ago.

From 1996-2006, it seemed the only drama in Division III was learning who would get the honor of losing to Mount Union in the title game. The Purple Raiders won eight championships during that span and own 10 crowns overall.

The Warhawks were the victims in both '05 and '06 under former coach Bob Berezowitz.

"Once you win that first one, then you build a lot of confidence," said Berezowitz, who retired in '06 after 22 seasons. "You say, 'Hey, we can play with them.' But until you beat 'em, you can't say that."

They finally did beat 'em in '07 -- by the same score as Saturday's. The seniors in this one were freshmen then.

"It was like, 'Wow. They are human. They can be beat,' " senior defensive back Matt McCulloch said. "Since then we've come here with the sense that we're going to win the game. I think that's huge, coming in with confidence."

The same things we've long seen with Mount Union we now see with Whitewater. The work ethic. The fundamental soundness. Perhaps most of all, the level of respect the younger players show toward those who came before them.

"It's been a tremendous run," said Berezowitz, who now watches the games while Lance Leipold guides the team. "All that success just builds success. We're getting to that point now where Mount Union's been for many, many years.

"We've got kids that do not want to be a part of letting somebody down."

About 20 minutes after Kehres gave his wink-and-smile response, Leipold was asked the same question: Was his team now the standard-bearer in Division III?

He knew better than to bite.

"We'll let you guys decide that," he said.

Oh, it's decided. They are. But as Mount Union can attest, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown -- particularly when you've "ticked off" the royalty who once owned it.

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