SALEM, Va. -- Every year about this time, the usual things seem to happen.
Santa gets swarmed at the malls, late Christmas shoppers start to get nervous -- and in Division III football, Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater prepare to play each other for a national championship in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
The two teams even sport the same purple-and-white school colors, for goodness sakes.
“The meeting of the purples is something you always seem to hear about around this time of the year, so it’s good to get back here,” UW-Whitewater middle linebacker Cole Klotz said. “It really speaks volumes about these two programs.”
But along with all these national title appearances against one another comes a misconception. The coaches and players from both teams insist that their schools’ successes make it sometimes appear to outsiders that they are far superior to all other DIII football programs in the country and that it’s the proverbial cakewalk through the playoffs to make repeat appearances in the Stagg Bowl.
For UW-Whitewater, in particular, there is proof that such an assumption is blatantly false.
After defeating Mount Union for the championship three of four years beginning in 2007 -- including three years in a row in 2009-11 -- the Warhawks fell off the title wagon last year. They lost three times during the regular season and failed to even make the playoffs, making their return to this year’s “meeting of the purples’’ all the more satisfying.
“It’s good to be back, that’s for sure,” UW-Whitewater head coach Lance Leipold said. “Playing Mount Union again, to the outsider, they think it just happens. And the one thing we found out last year is that it’s not a given. You aren’t given a ticket to your way back here, you have to earn your way back into the playoffs and that’s on a week-in, week-out basis.
“My respect for Mount Union continues to grow, based on the level that they continue to play at all the time. I know the focus and the level of intensity that it takes -- all the time. For our team, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. Our guys understand the level of commitment and where it needed to be for us to have a chance to come back.”
Nothing illustrates how difficult it is to make it this far than the semifinal games both teams played this season.
Mount Union edged North Central (Ill.) in a blizzard 41-40, while No. 5-ranked UW-Whitewater posted a 16-15 victory against Mary Hardin-Baylor. And in the quarterfinals of the playoffs, Mount Union had to hang on for a 62-59 win against Wesley.
Both teams have had their share of close calls throughout the season, yet they managed to win them all. Both teams are 14-0 entering Friday’s game.
“Sometimes we’ll beat somebody in a close game and people are like, ‘What’s wrong with you guys?’ But you can’t always blow everybody out, even if you’d like to. There are a lot of other good teams in Division III,” Mount Union linebacker Hank Spencer said.
His head coach, Vince Kehres, could not agree more.
“One of the things that us and Whitewater relate upon is how difficult it is to get to this point. Nobody knows that better than they do, or we do,” said Kehres, who is in his first season as head coach of the Purple Raiders after replacing his retired father, Larry. “It’s a playoff system -- and at Mount Union, we feel like we’ve been in the playoffs for eight weeks. On Nov. 2, we played Heidelberg and they were 7-0. Two weeks later, we played John Carroll and they were 9-0.
“We’ve played four playoff games since then. But it feels like it’s been backs-against-the-wall, must-win situations for about eight weeks. It’s a grind. It’s tough to stay consistent and keep the players on a consistent level through this type of a long season.
“So I’ve got great respect for their program and their ability to do this and be here this many times. And I know that feeling is mutual, because Coach Leipold and I have talked about it.”
Mount Union quarterback Kevin Burke smiled and shook his head at the thought of those who simply assume every DIII title game is going to involve the Purple Raiders and the Warhawks, based on their intertwined history.
“I think it’s a funny thing that we keep seeing them. But that’s just a credit to them and us that we make it through four games in the playoffs year after year,” Burke said. “They’re a great team, so I’m not surprised that they’re here. And we’re a great team, too, so it’s going to be a fun matchup on Friday.
“There is that misconception that, ‘Oh, it’s just those two at the top of the heap.’ But there are so many good teams in Division III. I think this year, especially in the semifinals and quarterfinals, showed that there are a bunch of great teams out there. It just speaks volumes for both of these programs that we were able to make it this far again. We’re pretty darn good teams.”