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UW-Whitewater continuing unprecedented run of Division III success

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"I think our coaches have found that the success in one program can help another. It can help open doors in recruiting. It can help open doors in fundraising," UW-Whitewater football coach Lance Leipold says.

Keith Lucas

On May 27, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater baseball team capped off a fairly regular athletic season for Warhawks athletic -- "regular" by Whitewater standards, but purely extraordinary for most other collegiate programs.

Players sprinted to the mound, swarming and forming a dogpile on top of starting pitcher Scott Plaza, who scattered seven hits en route to a 7-0, complete-game victory -- clinching its second ever NCAA Division III baseball championship after Emory's Phil Malardi flew out to end the game.

For John Vodenlich, the victory ushered in his second championship as head coach. The Warhawks' men's basketball program captured its fourth national title and the second in three seasons under head coach Pat Miller on March 22 with a thrilling 75-73 victory. Junior guard Quardell Young drove three quarters of the court for a game-winning lay-up with 0.9 seconds left in regulation.

That followed Whitewater's football team dominating Mount Union 52-14 in December, winning its fifth Division III championship in seven seasons under Lance Leipold.

For the first time in the history of the NCAA, one university captured titles in football, basketball and baseball in a single academic year.

The success maintained by Whitewater's athletic program isn't contained to just one year's worth of accomplishments. Strong senses of pride and work ethic in both athletics and academics run throughout the university. Its former players -- including the current three head coaches for those sports -- and current student-athletes have helped turn the university into a Division III powerhouse that rivals the success of many more renowned, higher-tier programs.

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Whitewater, Wisconsin, is a small city nestled between Walworth and Jefferson counties with a population of roughly 14,000 people, according to the United States census. The university itself has an enrollment of over 12,000, with 10,757 undergraduates.

The location was one of many factors that played a role in quarterback Matt Blanchard choosing to play for the Warhawks after transferring from Division II program Northern Michigan after the 2008 season. Blanchard, a native of Lake Zurich, Illinois, only had to travel about 1.5 hours to see family.

For two-sport athlete Chris Davis, Whitewater was merely an hour from his home in Madison and his son.

Whitewater's location is attractive for college students and student-athletes wanting to stay close to home. It sits 58 miles southwest from Milwaukee, 45 miles southeast of Madison and 104 miles northwest of Chicago. Leipold and Miller recruit heavily in southern Wisconsin, and about two-thirds of Vodenlich's 2014 baseball roster were in-state products.

2014-15 UWW Schedules: Football Men's Basketball

Former players frequently praise the head coaches that represent Warhawks athletics. Davis, a former Madison East standout who won championships as both a basketball (2012) and football (2014) player at UW-Whitewater, had the opportunity to be coached by both Miller and Leipold.

Miller gave Davis a second chance at a collegiate basketball career after Davis was kicked off his Madison Area Technical College team for fighting with a fellow teammate. Miller also helped extend his athletic career, as Miller spoke with Leopold after Davis exhausted his basketball eligibility -- and was allowed to play football.

It's not just the head coaches that continue this winning tradition, but also the coaching staff they surround themselves with. Former center Brent Allen, a 2007 Division III Rimington Trophy winner who now coaches at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, saw how the organized coaching style trickles down from Leipold to his assistants, whether in practices, game situations or youth camps.

"They take every single thing seriously, no-nonsense," Allen said.

"They want to project a very good image during that whole experience and run it very smoothly."

The winning culture of the Whitewater football program has sold recruits. Blanchard, who competed for a NFL backup quarterback spot with the Carolina Panthers this summer before being placed on injured reserve on Aug. 26, noted the "healthy competition" between the players which was something different he saw with the Wildcats in Northern Michigan. The sense of tradition and discipline was instilled into the teams he played on in his three years as a Warhawk -- all three ended with national titles.

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Photo: Keith Lucas

"You get a lot of players -- everyone who comes in -- who just buys into everything that's going on there, and it's easy to," said Blanchard, who threw for 5,106 yards and 44 touchdowns in his three seasons (two starting) for the Warhawks.

"It's not a hard sell by any means, but coach Leipold brings that discipline day in and day out."

Davis, who was named National Player of the Year by D3hoops.com and is set to become a varsity basketball assistant at Madison East High School this season, believes Leipold's squads helped stir the pot between student-athletes from different sports. He noted how UW-Whitewater student athletes talked about the football team, and that made players strive to become better.

"Football really started the tradition of winning," said Davis, "so everyone wants to try to win."

Along with the culture and location, UW-Whitewater houses facilities and support staff that are among the best for Division III schools. With only one Division I football and baseball program in-state (UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee, respectively), the Warhawks are able to recruit high-caliber prospects who want to stay close to home, or -- like Blanchard and Davis -- initially go to another program and bounce back to them.

These characteristics have helped form a sustained culture of success that brings in talented recruits, says former Whitewater guard Alex Merg, who won two championships under Miller.

"Once that happens, then the coaching takes off, and there's quality coaching everywhere in the athletic program. I think that's what really helps sustain the excellence more so than just win here and there."

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Former college players frequently return to coach their alma maters. The legendary Bear Bryant played alongside NFL Hall of Famer Don Hutson in the 1930s before leading Alabama to six national championships as the head of the Crimson Tide. In the modern era, Pat Fitzgerald was a standout linebacker on Northwestern's 1995 Rose Bowl team, and he's now the Big Ten's second-longest tenured head coach with the Wildcats.

Leipold, Miller and Vodenlich all played for the Warhawks before ultimately coming back to coach their alma mater, and all have added their own marks to the success of their programs.

The three replaced long-standing and successful head coaches that helped build Whitewater into a respected Division III juggernaut. In 2007, Leipold replaced Bob Berezowitz, his former coach who led Warhawk football for 22 seasons. Berezowitz won eight Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles as a head coach and was also a Warhawks quarterback in the 1960s.

As an alum, Leipold says having the distinction of being a former student-athlete and current coach has helped sell Warhawks athletics to recruits and what the university has done for him.

It's also allowed Leopold -- a prolific quarterback in the mid-1980s who still ranks second all-time for career pass attempts (647), fourth in yards (4,277) and sixth in completions (303) -- to give back to the university with five Division III national championships in seven seasons.

"I say it somewhat joking, but there's a lot of truth to it, I didn't light it up academically," Leipold said.

"I was a pretty average student, and sometimes when you find a way to give back to your university, it's a way to say ‘thank you' to them for what they've allowed them to do, and it's kind of unique how it's come back almost full circle."

Coming back "home" to UW-Whitewater wasn't a tough transition for the three coaches, who knew of each other during their collegiate careers. Leipold was an assistant from 1987-88 and offensive coordinator under Berezowitz in 1990 while Miller and Vodenlich were still student-athletes.

Though establishing relationships between coaches was simpler, replacing a legend with a track record of sustained success for each team was not an easy task. Miller took over the men's basketball program from his former coach, Dave Vander Meulen. Miller's predecessor coached 22 years at Whitewater, accumulating 440 victories and two national titles, including one with Miller in 1989.

Miller was an assistant coach for eight seasons under Vander Meulen, and wanted to connect and motivate players in a fashion closer to his own personality. One glare from Vander Meulen, Miller said, would let a player know he was mad at you. Miller wanted to operate a little differently.

"He was a very strong personality," Miller said. "Definitely did things the way he wanted them done, and so the challenge for me was to keep what we had done that was successful and be my own person."

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Photo: Eric Kelley, D3photography.com

One player who saw some subtle but noticeable changes under Leipold was Allen. The former Warhawks center said Leipold wasn't necessarily trying to usher in a new culture after replacing Berezowitz, but he did put a spin on how the program would be run.

"You could tell he was no non-sense, and he wanted to do things the right way from the beginning," said Allen, who joked that one of his first conversations with Leipold involved the head coach requesting Allen cut his long hair.

Leipold would lead the Warhawks to their first NCAA Division III national championship in football that season, though it was an 18-point comeback in the fourth game of the season against UW-La Crosse that forged a bond between players and staff.

Down 28-10 at the end of the third quarter with one loss already under the belt to Division II St. Cloud State the week prior, Whitewater scored 25 unanswered points on the road to defeat the Eagles. Leipold pointed to this game as a turning point for the team starting to come together en route to the national title.

After being away from Whitewater for 16 years -- including stops at UW-Madison, Nebraska-Omaha and Nebraska -- Leipold knew trust played a big role in establishing his program.

"Once they were able to understand that I cared and we cared as a staff about them -- personally and on the field -- and our goals and admissions were the same as they wanted as players, I think they were able to quickly make the transition and see that we had a chance to carry this thing on and really even possibly take it to new heights," Leipold said.

Miller transitioned between multiple offenses in his first few years after taking over the basketball program in 2004, but found the right offensive system after the 2009 season. Despite the tinkering, the Warhawks never finished below fourth in the WIAC.

Along with making adjustments to the offensive system, Miller sought to work on his team's defense, a "tough sell" for the players to value defense to the extent needed to be a championship-caliber squad. For the 2013-14 championship season, Whitewater ranked 12th in Division III in scoring defense and held opponents to 42.3 percent shooting.

Vodenlich played under former head coach Jim Miller, who led the Warhawks' baseball team from 1987-2003 and to a berth in the NCAA Division III World Series in 1989. Vodenlich was a two-time ABCA All-American who batted .397 during his playing days at Whitewater.

After Vodenlich graduated from Whitewater, he went overseas to play in Slovenia. He met players and coaches from different countries, and the experience opened his eyes to service -- he currently is a team leader of International Sports Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to the proper coaching and teaching of baseball.

"Our job is to teach them the game of baseball and then the game of life," Vodenlich said. "We're going to make a lot of the mistakes, and they're going to make a lot of mistakes, but I think what they learn is that our core values -- things like discipline and resiliency and there's a number of other ones that we discuss on a daily basis -- those are the things that we gotta keep coming back to."

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Photo: Alex Saager, UW-Whitewater Sports Information

For Miller, his coaching style adjusted recently due to some health scares. Earlier this year, he missed part of the season while dealing with discomfort in his shoulder. Initially diagnosed with a blockage on the sixth and seventh cervical nerves of his spine in addition to two bulging discs, he had a procedure done in early February to alleviate the issues.

However, doctors saw something in an EMG scan they couldn't quite diagnose as a cervical spine issue. Health officials told Miller at one point he might have ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).

He was finally diagnosed with Parsonage-Turner syndrome, a rare disorder that starts with shoulder pain followed by motor weakness and numbness. Miller's nerves would stop working and muscle loss would onset, but then reverses itself. The experience set much into perspective for the coach, also a husband and father of two.

"If I look back at the early years of coaching," Miller said, "if I look back critically, there's no question in my mind I wanted to win too badly and I probably pressed too hard.

"I think once we had some success in 2012, going through what I did to an extent this year, it just put things in perspective, and it made me relax and have more fun with it."

Through the years, the coaches have shared some more light-hearted conversations. After Vodenlich won Whitewater's first ever Division III baseball championship, he told Miller -- who sits only a few offices away -- he refused to talk with him because it was "bad karma."

Miller also relied on Leipold's advice during the spring of 2012 -- Miller's first championship season as coach. Every Tuesday for the final six weeks of that season, the two would go out to lunch to discuss coaching points and how to not over-coach their teams.

The friendly, competitive banter has since spread between the coaching staffs at Whitewater.

"I think our coaches have found that the success in one program can help another." -Lance Leipold

"I think that's been very, very contagious," Leipold said. "I think our coaches have found that the success in one program can help another. It can help open doors in recruiting. It can help open doors in fundraising. There's a lot of different things that I think sometimes people think that may get invested in one over the other, and I think they're all finding we all can find success with the way things are being operated."

Student-athletes have also picked up the winning fever. The culture of winning, from watching teams from afar to competing in the weight room and other social interactions with each other in the Union, has fueled players from all programs to buy in.

"If you see who's to your right and to your left, there's a good chance they may have won a national championship," Vodenlich said.

"Hey, if they did, you ask yourself, ‘why can't I do that?"

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Whitewater's football season begins Friday. A banner year and the pinnacle of athletic achievement is now past.

But for Leipold, last year's championship trifecta still hasn't sunk in it.

"You know, to think that this has never been done before, I don't know if it's really truly set into me," said Leipold, who goes into the 2014 season with a 94-6 record and an absurd .940 winning percentage in seven seasons.

"Our season ended so long ago. It was really the other two who put this over the top, so it's hard to even fully embrace. It's really special for us that this happens."

Many expect the football team to continue its dominant ways. WIAC head coaches and sports information directors nominated the Warhawks to win their ninth conference championship in 10 years recently, as the team returns 15 starters from last year's national championship team.

Davis and Miller noted the men's basketball squad returns much talent for 2014-15, including leading scorer K.J. Evans and Young. Merg commented that a program normally cannot win national championships year in and year out, but teams can definitely compete nationally each season.

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Photo: Eric Kelley, D3photography.com

"If they can use that talent and keep the tough mentality -- doing the little things, playing defense -- if they can just keep that mentality," Merg said, "there's no reason why the team won't be competing for another national title next year, and I think that can translate all the programs in their individual sports respectively."

Vodenlich says he tries not to look too far into the future with all the variables that await, though he's confident in the program he's built up for 11 seasons. As a catcher in 1989, he played against a UW-Madison squad that would later dissipate after the 1991 season. Some wound up as teammates on his UW-Whitewater team.

His plan of attack revolves around coming to work every day, pushing the envelope to get better.

"You can't take anything for granted," Vodenlich said. "You can't think too long into the future. You just gotta everyday step in and put the program on the map."

Miller knows what the success has done for not just his program but for the athletic program as a whole. There's a heightened state of expectations for a program that not only won this trifecta of championships, but also had other great accomplishments last season.

Merg's sister, Mary, and the Whitewater's women's basketball team made it to the NCAA Division III Final Four, while its women's softball squad reached the World Series. The men's wrestling team, not to be outdone, also finished second in its NCAA meet.

The bar's raised now for all the teams to perform. Miller believes they can continue to establish UW-Whitewater's athletic legacy.

"The climate around Whitewater is not ‘we've accomplished this great thing -- we're done.'" Miller said.

"I think, to a ‘T,' every coach is working hard, whether they're trying to improve their resources internally, externally, through fundraising, improving facilities, recruiting. I think everyone is excited with our success, and we're all eager to build on it and continue to try to move our program forward."