WHITEWATER, WIS. - Along the walkway to Perkins Stadium, Wisconsin-Whitewater has placed a "Plaza of Excellence" in tribute to its football team. Its three NCAA Division III championships are commemorated there, with a blank plaque ready to be engraved with the next.
That could happen yet this year. The top-ranked Warhawks beat St. Thomas 20-0 Saturday in the NCAA semifinals on their home field, earning a seventh consecutive trip to the championship game. Whitewater (14-0), which has won the past two national titles, also extended its winning streak to 44 games, the longest in the nation and the fifth longest in NCAA history.
The No. 3 Tommies (13-1), who made the NCAA semifinals for the first time in school history, could not overcome a Whitewater defense that locked down big-play receiver Fritz Waldvogel and limited the running game. St. Thomas gained only 214 total yards -- less than half of its season average -- and was shut out for the first time since a 21-0 loss to St. John's on Nov. 13, 2004.
Players and coaches on both teams expressed surprise at the Tommies' failure to score. No one was surprised that the Warhawks will return to Salem, Va., on Friday to play a seventh consecutive title game against Mount Union, which defeated Wesley 28-21 in Saturday's other semifinal.
"At the end of the day, we've been there," said Warhawks quarterback Matt Blanchard, who completed 14 of 19 passes for 179 yards and had a hand in both touchdowns. "We're battle-tested. It's a credit to the teams that built this program up. We go into games expecting to win."
They have not lost since the national championship game in 2008, earning their 14th consecutive NCAA playoff victory Saturday. The Warhawks scored on their first three possessions, as Blanchard threw for one score and ran for another, with Eric Kindler's 32-yard field goal in between.
The defense ensured St. Thomas could not find its rhythm. Whitewater worked to keep running back Colin Tobin in check and force the Tommies to pass, and their solid team coverage on Waldvogel and other key receivers limited the options of quarterback Dakota Tracy.
The Tommies got to the Whitewater 23-yard line on their second drive. On fourth-and-7, they chose not to try a 40-yard field goal into a stiff wind, and they came away empty when Tracy could not complete a pass to Jon Nelson. They reached the Warhawks 14 on their next possession, but Tim Albright pushed a 31-yard field goal attempt to the right.
After taking a 17-0 lead into halftime, the Warhawks began the third quarter with a drive that consumed 7 minutes, 49 seconds and ended with a 30-yard field goal. With time running short, Tommies coach Glenn Caruso said, his team began to press too hard. Tracy completed 11 of 26 passes for 64 yards and threw two second-half interceptions. Waldvogel finished with just 45 yards on eight catches, while Tobin ran for 82 yards.
The game ended a spectacular run for St. Thomas' seniors. In their four seasons, the team made three consecutive trips to the NCAA playoffs and compiled a 43-7 record.
"We recruited them on nothing more than the promise that tomorrow would be a little better than today," an emotional Caruso said. "We didn't have a fancy record or a national ranking. This group was willing to risk their hearts to set their goals as high as possible.
"It might not look like the gap between [rankings] three and one is big. It is. Through the pain we have today, we've learned what we need to do to keep getting better."