Wisconsin-Whitewater: A season of domination

Dylan Friend and his friends on the UW-Whitewater baseball team completed what the Warhawk football team started back in December in Salem, Va.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com

By Rob Knox

Back in March, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater head football coach Lance Leipold had a difficult decision to make: Drive the short distance to Stevens Point to watch the Warhawk women’s basketball team compete in the Division III Final Four or make the long trip to watch the UWW men’s basketball team in Salem, also playing in the Final Four.

Leipold went to support the women and watched the thrilling men’s championship game against Williams on television. Less than two weeks ago with the baseball team competing in the Division III national title game against Emory in Appleton, Leipold along with a majority of his staff made the journey to support the program.

After all, supporting each other’s programs and winning national championships is a way of life at UW-Whitewater. It’s one of the many reasons why the Warhawk program is the talk of the nation. The Warhawks completed an unprecedented trifecta by winning national titles in football, men’s basketball and baseball this past academic year.

“It’s funny because in our conference, you’re trying to win conference championships because it’s so competitive,” Leipold said. “Winning national titles in football, men’s basketball and baseball in the same year was something beyond our thoughts. I know each coach is focused on their team and that if they played well that this something special could be accomplished. We had an opportunity to watch the baseball championship game and it was pretty special to witness that type of history.”

This year's haul: Three Walnut and Bronze trophies.
Photos by Larry Radloff and Eric Kelley, d3photography.com 

It’s the first time in the history of the NCAA, regardless of level, that one school has ever won national championships in those three sports in the same year. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the purely mathematical odds of that happening for any program is an astounding 38 million-to-1. Although those odds don’t necessarily take into account the programs that realistically will not compete for a conference crown, let alone a national title.

In addition to those titles, the Whitewater women’s gymnastics team and the men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams won national titles this year, though those aren’t NCAA-sponsored competitions.

Also, the Whitewater women’s basketball team reached the Final Four, the softball team made the World Series, the bowling team participated in the national tournament and the wrestling team, led by individual national champion Shane Sieffert at 197 pounds, finished second in the nation.

Wait, there’s more.

Overall 17 of the 20 teams competed in postseason play this past year. Seven teams won WIAC championships (baseball, football, wrestling, women’s basketball, women’s soccer, softball, women’s tennis) and three won tournament titles (baseball, women’s soccer, softball).

“When you think of Whitewater, you think of high standards here,” outfielder Dylan Friend said. “Whitewater is a national title contender in every sport. That’s a huge reason why I came here and probably everybody else too. All of the different sports feed off each other here, but that’s just Whitewater because we breed success. When football won the national title, we were happy for them, but then we just said, ‘let’s go get our piece of the pie’ because it makes you hungry.”

The Warhawks had 159 athletes named to All-WIAC teams, including seven who were named WIAC Student-Athletes of the year and four who were named WIAC Players of the Year along with four WIAC Coaches of the Year and four national coaches of the year. The university also produced 63 all-Americans.

Bolstered by its championship trifecta and strong postseason performances, Whitewater reached another historic milestone by finishing second in the final 2013-14 Directors' Cup standings. The Warhawks' 1,134 points in the Directors' Cup is the highest tally ever for a Wisconsin university. Last year, UW-Whitewater placed fourth, and has finished in the top 15 every year since the 2007-08 season in a competition generally dominated by schools from the New England Small College Athletic Conference.

“Our student-athletes play for the love of the game,” Whitewater interim athletic director Amy Edmonds said. “They are champions in every sense – from their success on the field to their academic achievements in the classroom. I am proud of the way our coaches and staff instill in our student-athletes a strong commitment to teamwork and community service. This recognition will allow us to further attract the best and brightest student-athletes to join the Warhawk family.”

UW-Whitewater, with its picturesque 569-acre campus located near the southern portion of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, has changed names four times since it was founded in 1868 as Whitewater Normal School. Perhaps a fifth change is needed for this run of success to “Championship Central” or “Titletown South” since Green Bay, Whitewater’s neighbor to the north has the original “Titletown” name copyrighted. The Warhawks’ anthem should be DJ Khaled’s All We Do Is Win.

So what’s in the frozen tundra and cheese in Wisconsin?

“It’s been a whirlwind for us around here,” Edmonds, who took over as athletic director when Paul Plinske moved to Division II Nebraska-Kearney, said. “It’s been exciting. We have amazing coaching staffs that know how to achieve excellence. They have focused on tiniest details. They are prepared for anything that comes that way. We want all of our programs to strive for excellence as we provide a well-rounded experience for our student-athletes while providing them with growth opportunities.”

There isn’t a specific reason for the recent run of high level success at Whitewater. It’s just been a perfect storm of factors coming together at the same time such as the school’s ideal location, competing in the high-level WIAC demands excellence in order to win the conference title, recruiting and retaining quality student-athletes, competitive coaches along with a winning environment created by the chancellor of the university.

“We have a saying that we have 20 sports, but we are one team,” Edmonds said. “All of the student-athletes support one another. We have developed a supportive and dynamic culture over the last few years here and to see that develop has been exciting. It’s such an honor and privilege just to see how things developed from my time as a student here. We have good funding sources and facilities. Our chancellor strives for excellence and he wants that in every facet of the University from our faculty as well as every department on campus, including athletics.”

All sorts of UW-Whitewater teams regularly take part in NCAA postseason play, including softball.
Photo by Joe Fusco, d3photography.com

We’ll try to figure out the reasons for Whitewater’s success across the board.

The first reason for the success of Whitewater is the conference that it competes in. The WIAC is a Division III power conference. Consider that the league captured 98 NCAA Division III national titles entering the 2013-14 academic year. This total excludes the NAIA (26), NCGA (19), AIAW (3), NCAA Division II (2) and NGCA (1) titles claimed by WIAC schools.

Furthermore, five of the nine schools have won national titles in one of the big three sports over the last 31 years. Whitewater (five) and UW-La Crosse (two) have won NCAA titles in football; Whitewater (four), UW-Platteville (four) and UW-Stevens Point (three) have done so in men’s basketball and Whitewater (two) and UW-Oshkosh (two) have done so in baseball.

Whitewater has an undergraduate enrollment of about 11,000. About 15.7 percent (roughly 700) of those students are a member of one of the Warhawks’ 20 varsity sponsored sports. The nine institutions of the WIAC have a total student enrollment of approximately 70,000.

Over the past decade, Whitewater has won 13 of its 17 national championships (five football, three gymnastics, two men’s basketball, two baseball and one volleyball) in school history. Warhawk athletic teams have enjoyed 37 top five finishes in the nation, 21 individual national champions, 10 national athletes of the year, more than 420 All-America honors, 145 appearances in postseason competition, 51 WIAC titles, more than 160 individual conference champions and 41 WIAC Scholar Athletes of the Year.

Another factor in the success of Whitewater is that several of the key coaches and administrators are alums. Leipold was a record-setting quarterback in the mid-1980s, head men’s basketball coach Pat Miller was a guard on the Warhawks’ NCAA championship team in 1989 and head baseball coach John Vodenlich was an All-American catcher who graduated in 1992.

The men’s basketball team has won two of the past three national titles and owns a 291-83 record during Miller’s 13 seasons. And the baseball title was Whitewater’s second under Vodenlich, who has won 402 games in 11 seasons, an average of 36.5 wins per year.

“Our athletic programs have always been successful, but recently we’ve elevated that bar,” Miller said. “I think part of the reason is when you’re in a university setting, you see your peers doing well and that gives you the confidence especially when you see that they’re competing on a national level. It’s all mental here and sometimes that aspect prohibits you from achieving success. The mental barrier has been removed here. Our athletes go to class, work out as hard as possible and as coaches, we tell our athletes that they can accomplish anything if we prepare and train the right way.”

Whitewater benefits from the dearth of Division II programs in its region (UW-Parkside is the only D-II school in the state), so many of the kids in the state who don’t go Division I generally attend one of the nine WIAC schools, which enhances its programs and quality of competition among them. Whitewater enjoys a prime location near Milwaukee, Racine/Kenosha, Chicago, Rockford, Beloit/Janesville and Madison. None of those metropolitan areas is more than two hours away and most are closer.

Meanwhile on the East Coast, the schools in the Mid-Atlantic and Atlantic are in a geographic location in which there are several Division I schools from the American Athletic, Big East, Big 10, Atlantic-10, ACC, America East, Colonial Athletic Association and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, numerous Division II schools and a boatload of Division III institutions within a two-hour radius. In many instances, those Division III schools in the Mid-Atlantic and Atlantic regions are recruiting the same student-athlete in a diluted talent pool since many of the studs are gobbled up by the Division I and II schools in the region.

It’s not an excuse, just the reality of life on the East Coast where the population is greater. This past year, FDU-Florham was able to win a national title in women’s basketball while completing a perfect season with most of its roster from the state of New Jersey, where there are also few Division II schools.

UW-Whitewater has success in individual sports as well, including women's track, where the team finished third nationally and Lexie Sondegroth won the national title in the 400 meters.
Photo by d3photography.com

Aside from the many Division I schools in Wisconsin, there are two NAIA schools in Wisconsin that offer scholarships and that’s Cardinal Stritch in Milwaukee and Viterbo in La Crosse. UW-Parkside is 45 minutes from the Whitewater campus to offer a few more athletic scholarships. So coaches in the WIAC have a greater talent pool from which to choose from. The nine WIAC schools offer discounted tuition for its in-state residents, which makes it affordable to attend. The cost to attend UW-Whiterwater is $13,578 for in-state residents.

“We lose kids to the (Division II) Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference,” Miller said, referencing a conference of primarily state schools in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. “Far more high school athletes go there than in past years. However, many of them come back from those schools for whatever reason. Many times a lot of them don’t want to go far away from home.

“I will agree that we have far less Division II influence here than in some other areas of the country. We benefit from that which is accurate and it’s a good niche of where we’re located. Plus Whitewater is affordable and it allows kids to stay close to home where the parents can be part of their child’s overall experience here.”

The coaches make no apologies for the advantages that they enjoy. Despite all the present success, they all had to put in the work to make this a reality. Nobody was expecting national titles in the same year in football, men’s basketball and baseball, but it just happened. And yet, nobody can explain the exact moment when it all came together.

“When I was here, we were at a good level and now we’re at a different level,” Miller said. “We’re achieving at a high level across the board and we take a lot of pride in that. Back in the ’80s, I don’t know if we had as much success across the board like we do now. We had pockets of success, but now it’s been more consistent and wide spread.  It’s a great question as there’s just a combination of things. We have a great location, a good recruiting base, a wide range of strong academic programs to choose from, great external support, our booster club is outstanding and great administrative support that values athletics.

“We have competitive coaches who want to achieve at a high level and have high expectations. So many people can share so much ownership and has contributed in different ways. I know how much fun it is for our student-athletes how it creates a lot of pride throughout the University and the community.” 

For Leipold, his only mission when he took over the football program was to emulate Mount Union’s model and build a program that would one day topple the Purple Raiders. It can be argued that (continued below)

NESCAC as successful as all state schools combined

About 25 percent of Division III is state schools. But for all the complaining about advantages enjoyed by state schools, in fact, the New England Small College Athletic Conference, with just 11 schools, has nearly the same number of national titles over the past seven years. Here's a glance at the past five, where all state schools combined have won 26 national titles and the NESCAC alone has won 25.

Bold: State schools. Underlined: NESCAC.

Sport 2013-14 2012-13 2011-12 2010-11 2009-10
Baseball UW-Whitewater Linfield Marietta Marietta Illinois Wesleyan
Basketball, m UW-Whitewater Amherst UW-Whitewater St. Thomas UW-Stevens Point
Basketball, w FDU-Florham DePauw Illinois Wesleyan Amherst Wash U
Cross country, m St. Olaf North Central North Central Haverford North Central
Cross country, w Johns Hopkins Johns Hopkins Wash U Middlebury UW-Eau Claire
Field hockey Bowdoin Tufts TCNJ Bowdoin Salisbury
Football UW-Whitewater Mount Union UW-Whitewater UW-Whitewater UW-Whitewater
Golf, m Schreiner UT-Tyler Oglethorpe Greensboro Methodist
Golf, w Rhodes Mary Hardin-Baylor Methodist Methodist Methodist
Ice hockey, m St. Norbert UW-Eau Claire St. Norbert St. Norbert Norwich
Ice hockey, w Plattsburgh St. Elmira Rochester Tech Norwich Amherst
Indoor track, m UW-La Crosse UW-La Crosse North Central North Central North Central
Indoor track, w UW-Oshkosh UW-Oshkosh Wartburg UW-Oshkosh Wartburg
Lacrosse, m Tufts Stevenson Salisbury Salisbury Tufts
Lacrosse, w Salisbury Salisbury Trinity (Conn.) Gettysburg Salisbury
Rowing Trinity (Conn.) Williams Williams Williams Williams
Soccer, m Messiah Messiah Ohio Wesleyan Messiah Messiah
Soccer, w William Smith Messiah Messiah Hardin-Simmons Messiah
Softball Tufts Tufts Pacific Lutheran Linfield E. Texas Baptist
Swimming, m Kenyon Kenyon Denison Denison Kenyon
Swimming, w Emory Emory Emory Emory Emory
Tennis, m Amherst Williams Emory Amherst Middlebury
Tennis, w Emory Williams Williams Williams Williams
Track and field, m Mount Union UW-La Crosse McMurry North Central North Central
Track and field, w Wartburg Wartburg Wartburg UW-Oshkosh Illinois Wesleyan
Volleyball, m Springfield Springfield Springfield    
Volleyball, w Calvin St. Thomas Wittenberg Calvin Wash U
Wrestling Wartburg Wartburg Wartburg Wartburg Augsburg

following last year’s 52-14 victory over Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl, that Whitewater is the premiere Division III program in the country especially when you consider that Leipold has guided the Warhawks to five NCAA titles and a 94-6 record in his seven seasons.

“Before I got the job here, Mount Union was the measuring stick of Division III football,” Leipold said. “Now that we’ve had success, it becomes tougher to maintain. The good thing is it forces a commitment in the offseason from the players on the team because every position on our team is competitive. It doesn’t matter how many players we have here on campus because with football, we only get to suit up 100 players. Nobody is guaranteed a spot on the team. It can be a negative in some ways, but we see it as a positive for us.”

More winners than ever

Although UW-Whitewater won three national titles this past season, there was actually more diversity this past academic year than there had been in more than a decade. The 28 national champions came from 18 conferences, the highest number in the past decade. The least diverse year in that time span was 2009-10, when just 12 conferences had teams win Walnut and Bronze.

Another positive for Whitewater’s athletic program has its ability to fund raise, communicate with donors and engage the community in every aspect of its day to day operations. Since Division III programs aren’t permitted to offer athletic-based scholarships, Whitewater has focused plenty of efforts externally, hiring a director of development for athletics two years ago.

One of the biggest donors to the university was Dave Kachel, who is deceased. However, his benefactory spirit lives through his sons Mike, Larry, John are still involved as well as his wife Lolita plays an active role in giving to the Whitewater program. They helped contribute funds for the renovations to the athletic facilities a few years ago.

Most of the athletics operating budget comes from student fees. Edmonds oversees and manages a revenue and expense budget of approximately $5.5 million for UWW’s 20 sports, which is more than some lower level Division I institutions, at least ones without football.

“We are thankful for that support,” Edmonds said. “It’s crucial that our office continues to develop relationships externally. The community does a great job of providing support financially, which continues our quest for excellence. Our student-athletes pay out of pocket. They understand that attending Whitewater is an investment in their academic and athletics career. It takes a special student to be part of our institution and not just athletically. Once they understand our culture, we want them to be excellent in all things. We want our student-athletes to be well rounded and that they are well prepared for the real world when they graduate.”

Leipold is happy that the winning hasn’t compromised any values and that they’ve done everything correctly by the book.

“We have not compromised anything during this run of success,” Leipold said. “We haven’t changed nor have we sacrificed another department or program to put athletics at the front, which is very rewarding. We’ve been able to see internally and externally here how one program can help other programs here. Our tennis coach told me when we won a national title, it helped their recruiting. Success breeds success here.”

Now, the coaching staffs are focused on preparing to fend off all challengers anxious to knock them from the throne next season. Of course, the Warhawks may have more teams bring the cool Walnut and Bronze NCAA trophies back to campus next academic year. While they reap the benefits and enjoy all of the well-earned pats on the back, many of the coaches will take a mini-break to get away and spend time with their families.

“They make the most sacrifices and have enabled us to do what we do as coaches,” Leipold said. “I’ll probably get away and go to Florida and enjoy some quality family time.”