Crusaders’ defense dominates in football semifinal


Ky McCombe

Senior running back Alex Peete (23) looks to his teammates in a time out during the NCAA semifinals against Mary Hardin-Baylor University from Texas Saturday, Dec.11, 2021.

Sam Strash, Assistant Sports Editor

The UW-Whitewater Warhawks football team (13-1) fell to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor (TX) Crusaders (14-0) at Perkins Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The Crusaders will now travel to Canton, OH for the Division III championship game, the 48th edition of the Stagg Bowl, against the defending national champion North Central College (IL) Cardinals. 

“We’re tremendously excited about the opportunity we had to play a fantastic football team [Whitewater],” said UMHB head coach Pete Fredenburg. “To be able to come out victorious, we’re extremely excited to head to the national championship.”

Entering the contest, the Warhawks and Crusaders were ranked third and second in the latest Top 25 poll, respectively. This is the third straight season in which the two teams met in the playoffs. The Warhawks were coming off a 51-21 victory over Central (IA) at Perkins Stadium, while the Crusaders defeated Linfield (OR) 49-21 in their quarterfinal victory. Each team boasted a top 20 defense in Division III, but Whitewater’s defense struggled mightily in the first half, especially in coverage situations against senior wide receiver Brandon Jordan. Jordon had 91 receiving yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions in the first half.

“His game is to get in a ‘fight’ to go up for a ball and bring it down,” head coach Kevin Bullis said. “He [Crusaders quarterback Kyle King] puts it in a place for him. We knew that was going to be a challenge coming in; that was not a surprise for us.” Jordan would finish with 11 receptions and 164 receiving yards, plus two touchdowns.

“We knew they were going to try to run some RPO’s (run-pass option plays) and slow down our defensive pass rush. That’s something I think they saw as threatening,” senior defensive lineman, Mackenzie Balanganayi said. “It was frustrating at times.”

After being shut out for most of the first half, the Warhawks would drive down the field in the last six minutes of the first half. Junior wide receiver Tyler Holte scored on a nine-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Max Meylor to make the score 17-7 at halftime. Meylor was 11-for-14 on passing attempts in the first half with 101 yards and the touchdown to Holte. This would prove to be their only score of the game.

“We ran inside zone and look for a hole but they were on the backside. They were ready with their gap schemes,” senior running back Alex Peete said. “You could tell they came prepared.” Entering the game, Peete was the leading scorer as a running back in Division III football.

“We just weren’t able to establish consistency,” Bullis said. “We had some drives, but in a game like this, you don’t have a lot of room for error.”

Mary Hardin-Baylor’s defense efficiently shut down senior running back Alex Peete and senior wide receiver Ryan Wisniewski, two staples of the Warhawks’ offense, throughout the game. Wisniewski would only have one reception on the day for 14 yards and Peete would get 43 yards rushing and 38 receiving on 28 total touches. These two players, along with seven more starters on offense, are graduating and not returning for next season, making Saturday’s game their last as Warhawks.

“This is the beautiful part of what they do,” Bullis said. “They teach guys how to bust their tails together and how to love doing it together. When a bunch of people have to come out on a football field and have to practice every day, you’d think it’s just an unrelenting grind and not enjoying a moment of it. But no, they make it enjoyable. They pick each other up and challenge each other.”

“What they’ve done is so exciting and the legacy they’re leaving is so exciting for the future,” Bullis said.

While the loss comes at an untimely manner, the Warhawks still finished 13-1 on the season and were one of the last four teams remaining in the playoffs in Division III. They have now finished with ten or more wins in 12 of the last 14 seasons.