SALEM, Va. -- Cole Klotz, middle linebacker for Wisconsin-Whitewater, knows what it’s like to play for the NCAA Division III national championship in the Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
He also knows what it’s like to miss out on that.It is that kind of wide-ranging experience that Klotz has drawn upon all year as he focused on helping the Warhawks make a return to the Stagg Bowl after missing out entirely on the DIII playoffs last season when they were three-time defending national champions.
Klotz, a senior captain who also was one of four finalists for the Gagliardi trophy that goes to the nation’s most outstanding player in Division III, said Wednesday that he reminds himself to remain in that mindset every day.
Klotz said he will continue to do so until after Friday’s title game between UW-Whitewater and Mount Union. Both teams are 14-0 and this will be their eighth meeting in nine years in the Stagg Bowl.
“After last year, it was more a time to refocus on the process of getting here,” Klotz said. “You have the tendency to overlook the small things when you get to the national championship game that many years in a row. So we just sort of refocused on the day-to-day life, the game-to-game life again – and trying not to look too far ahead.
“It was a combination of a lot of things last year. But that’s what we determined we needed to focus on again – refocus on the process. And it’s worked.”
It has worked to help the No. 5 Warhawks survive a series of tests throughout the season. The latest was the 16-15 win they earned against stubborn Mary Hardin-Baylor in the semifinals of the DIII playoffs on hostile ground in Belton, Texas.
Klotz had six tackles in the game, two of which led to key losses for Mary Hardin-Baylor in the tight defensive-minded contest. Klotz leads UW-Whitewater with 96 tackles on the season, and also has registered a total of 11.5 tackles for losses to go along with one interception, one sack and one fumble recovery.
Along the way, Klotz had earned a reputation for using his side-to-side speed to cover large chunks of ground on the football field.
His best attributes, however, are his experience and leadership, according to UW-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold, who added that the two obviously go hand-in-hand.
“You get a chance to visit with Cole and you see right away that he’s a mature young man,” Leipold said. “He takes control of things, and that’s the type of leadership you need. He knows what it takes. To watch people like him on our team invest and re-invest themselves and then to see the dividends it pays, I’m real happy for them.”
Leipold added that what Klotz does for his team isn’t always measurable in raw statistics.
“He’s what you want in a captain. He comes walking into a room as the middle linebacker, and he’s got the measurable that you’re looking for in terms of physical stature (at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds). But it’s his maturity level that you’re looking for,” Leipold said.
“He’s got a lot of experience underneath him; he’s seen a lot of things. To see a young man like him who wants to go to med school do the things he’s done, to me, he’s everything that Division III athletics is all about. We’re going to miss him when he leaves.”
Mount Union coach Vince Kehres knows that won’t be until after Friday’s championship game, and he admitted he’s concerned about the havoc a player such as Klotz can wield. He said that Klotz is more or less a defensive version of his own player who was the winner of the Gagliardi Trophy – Mount Union junior quarterback Kevin Burke.
“He’s an outstanding player, and he’s going to make his share of tackles and plays on defense,” Kehres said of Klotz. “We just have to try to put him in some difficult positions where it looks like it’s a run and it’s a pass, or maybe it looks like a pass and it’s a run.
We’ve just try to put him in some tough spots, and then, of course, we’ve got to block him. We’ve got to try to do the best job that we can of blocking him and not letting him make 20 tackles.
“But he’s a great player. It shows on the video tape. Being a defensive coach for most of my career, I have a lot of respect for the way he plays and I can appreciate that. He seems to be for their team what Kevin is for our team – and a leader like that, they don’t come around every day.”
Neither does a trip to the Stagg Bowl, even for someone like Klotz who now has earned his third such trip in four years. But speaking like the man of experience that he is, Klotz insisted he is keeping it all in the proper perspective.
“You’re going to be happy when you hit the field and it’s the Stagg Bowl and everything,” Klotz said. “But kind of our focus is to just treat this week like the other 14. Let’s not get too hyped up with all the extracurricular activities, because then you tend to lose sight of what you’re really doing.”