The list of reasons for football fans to head to Whitewater to catch the Warhawks in action is lengthy. But it doesn't typically include seeing the home team get outclassed in thrilling fashion, as it was last Saturday.
The perpetrator was UW-Stevens Point, the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference's second-place team, sitting one game behind the previously undefeated Warhawks. Indeed, going into the game, Whitewater had won 25 straight WIAC games and 27 straight conference home games and was ranked number two in the nation.
The Warhawks are also the defending NCAA Division III national champions, having upended arch-nemesis Mount Union in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl last December after losing the championship game to the same team the two previous years.
But with a minute and a half left in last Saturday's game, down 16-9, the Pointers took possession on their own 16-yard line. Quarterback Jared Beckwith, a junior from Baraboo, connected with receiver Jared Jenkins, a sophomore from Milwaukee Rufus King, on five passes in 15 plays, including a 10-yard strike in the end zone with 20 seconds left, to make it 16-15.
Stevens Point head coach John Miech then decided to go for the two-point conversion and the win, instead of kicking the extra point and taking his chances in overtime. Beckwith again connected with Jenkins, giving the knot of Pointer fans in the stands reason to celebrate.
"Sometimes, you're lucky in coaching," Miech told the press afterward.
But luckier still were the 7,000-plus fans who got to see the suspense-packed finish, even those wearing Whitewater colors. Walking out of Perkins Stadium, I didn't witness the kind of vitriol I'd seen at Camp Randall after Wisconsin's loss to Ohio State in Madison a few weeks earlier. Maybe Whitewater fans are still drunk from last season's national championship; or maybe they just have college football in the proper perspective.
The state of Wisconsin is home to what is arguably football's greatest venue, Lambeau Field. In Madison, Camp Randall Stadium consistently makes the lists of college football's top destinations, perhaps due in part to the festivities that surround Badger games.
But among fans of the small-college game, Whitewater's Perkins Stadium has developed a reputation for excellent football presented without hype.
Saturday was my second trip to Perkins, having watched the Warhawks beat St. John's of Minnesota during their 2006 playoff run ("Hooray for the Warhawks," 12/15/06). This time, I took my 9-year old son and one of his friends. The total for tickets, three hot chocolates and two homecoming yo-yos was less than $20. Parking in a lot three blocks from Perkins was free.
The Warhawks took the field to the opening strains of Metallica's "Enter Sandman," which fades into the Whitewater band playing the Warhawk fight song. Student fans are lively, but, as in Madison, most arrive well after kickoff. The soundtrack for much of the game is provided by AC/DC, played over the loudspeaker when Whitewater is defending on third down.
On the field, the Warhawks are missing the services of running back Justin Beaver, who graduated last year after claiming the 2007 Gagliardi Trophy, awarded to Division III's top player. Stepping in is Levell Coppage, a freshman from Oak Park, Ill., who is averaging more than 130 yards a game, but was held to 91 yards on 26 carries by Stevens Point.
Quarterback Jeff Donovan, a junior from Wauwatosa, has completed 63% of his passes. The Warhawks lead the WIAC on total offense, averaging 411 yards a game with 28 touchdowns on the season. But Whitewater also has a strong reputation on defense, where it's given up an average of just 10 points a game this season, tops in the conference.
Whitewater hosts Eau Claire this Saturday and Stout next week before finishing the regular season at Platteville. Then come the playoffs, perhaps the best part of Division III football. Unlike the big schools, there is no controversy over national rankings or which conferences get the most teams into the big money bowls. It's all settled on the field in a single-elimination tournament that culminates with the Stagg Bowl.
Whitewater is hoping to get there for the fourth straight year, but the Pointers (now 6-1, just like the Warhawks) are contenders too.