Found December 15, 2011 on Fox Sports Wisconsin:
Every fall, 239 football teams take to the practice fields with their eyes on a trip to Salem, Va., to play for the NCAA Division III championship. For the past six years, 237 of those teams have watched the same two play for that championship.Friday night, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and The University of Mount Union (Ohio) will meet in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl for the seventh straight time to determine this year's national champion. Unarguably the two preeminent teams at the Division III level, Whitewater, of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and Mount Union, of the Ohio Athletic Conference, have set a standard for excellence in collegiate sports."It's never happened in any NCAA sport at any level," says Pat Coleman, publisher of D3Football.com. "To say it's unique kind of falls short of how unlikely it is."Unlikely, indeed. These two teams have accounted for 22 of the 78 Stagg Bowl berths since its inception in 1973. They've won 13 combined championships and 12 of the last 15.Mount Union came first, winning the title in 1993. Head coach Larry Kehres took his Purple Raiders back to Salem in 1996 and won six of the next seven championships. Mount Union fell to St. John's (Minn.) in the 2003 game and missed it completely in 2004 but returned in 2005 just as Whitewater made it to the national stage.Since then, the two teams have spilt six championship meetings with Whitewater coming out on top in the last two games."It's kind of a unique situation," Kehres said. "It hadn't happened before, that teams just keep coming back to go at it again; I think if you're a fan of one of these two teams you appreciate that your team's back, regardless of which side you're cheering for."Considering the frequency of their meetings, it would be logical to expect that each side knows the other very well. To an extent, that's true; there is a certain familiarity. But in the end, that familiarity means the game itself comes down to execution."We know each other but we don't know everything about each other," says Whitewater coach Lance Leipold, who has a 71-3 record since taking over the Warhawks in 2007. That's what makes each year special; each team is different in its on right. The keys are going to be not giving up big plays, being solid on special teams and the turnover game. A lot of times, if you look back at our games, those are things that have made the difference. The team that doesn't execute in those areas is often the team that ends up on the short end.Familiarity also lends itself to a couple of tricks, for lack of a better term. For instance, last year, Kehres inserted wide receiver Cecil Shorts at quarterback, turning to the Wildcat formation in the hopes of sparking a late rally in the Warhawks' eventual 31-21 victory.Shorts, by the way, is now in the NFL; he was the Jacksonville Jaguars' fourth-round pick in last April's draft. Whether such regular national exposure played a role in Shorts' success can be debated. But it certainly can't hurt."I think it's pretty easy to miss that there are really talented kids playing football at the Division III level, Coleman says. The NFL certainly notices. We've had kids drafted more often in recent years. They're certainly beating the bushes and looking for kids they can sign as free agents or bring in for tryouts."On the surface, it would appear to be the perfect formula for a rivalry: two teams at the top of their game, competing annually on the grandest of stages. But Leipold 3-1 in Stagg Bowl appearances brushes off that notion."I don't view it like that," he says. "I view it as two teams that have earned their way and played extremely well during the season and playoffs to have a chance to compete for a championship. I guess I always view rivalries as somebody you know you're going to play every year. Many times, it's a conference game and somebody you recruit against. I guess, by my definition, it's been two programs that have played at a very high level now for a lot of years."Rivalries, though, are often in the eye of the beholder and while neither coach will come out and say it, the general perception is that these two teams truly are rivals, however respectful they are of the other's success."These are two programs that know each other pretty well, Coleman says. Even though the game isn't written in on the schedule every year, you can pretty much assume that if you're going to be playing this late in the season, you're probably going to be playing one of those teams."
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