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Whitewater boasts winning tradition
By Marty Maciaszek | Daily Herald Staff





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Published: 11/24/2011 10:10 PM

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Jason Ford was wondering where he wanted to go to college and play football as he watched television on a Saturday afternoon in mid-December of 2007.

The Fremd senior was intrigued by what he saw in the NCAA Division III national championship game between Wisconsin-Whitewater and Mt. Union (Ohio). He sent highlight tapes to both schools and a couple of weeks later got a call from then-Whitewater offensive coordinator Jim Zebrowski, who is now an assistant at Minnesota.

"We talked for 10 minutes and I was already sold," Ford said of a visit to the school shortly after it won its first Division III title. "The winning tradition and getting a chance for a national championship sold me right there."

Ford, who is now a senior starting tight end, eventually led former Fremd teammate and offensive lineman Jim Norris to come to Whitewater. Former Lake Zurich quarterback Matt Blanchard was looking to win again when he decided to transfer in after a year-and-a-half at Divsion II Northern Michigan.

Palatine sophomore linebacker Ryan Cortez has also become a major part of the Whitewater tradition. One where winning has been everything for a program driving toward winning a third-straight Division III title and extending a winning streak of 41 games as it hosts Franklin (Ind.) in a second-round playoff game Saturday.

And winning was a big thing to guys coming out of successful high school programs such as Ford, Norris, Blanchard and Cortez.

"I didn't want to go to a program that hadn't been successful," said Norris, a junior starting left guard who helps lead the way for Blanchard and prolific senior running back Levell Coppage from Oak Park-River Forest. "I wanted to keep winning coming from Fremd."

Ford, Norris and sophomore backup running back Evan Wright were part of Fremd's Mid-Suburban League records of 16 straight playoff trips and eight straight division titles. Taking part in a rebuilding project was not an option.

"A lot of programs go out hoping to win on Saturday," said Ford, who moved into the starting lineup this year and has caught 24 passes for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns. "At Whitewater winning is a priority.

"To get an opportunity to play for a team of that caliber on a national level was everything I wanted."

It was something Blanchard wanted to experience again after quarterbacking Lake Zurich to a Class 7A state runner-up finish in 2006. He redshirted his first year at Northern Michigan and appeared in 8 games in 2008 but didn't see the program heading in the direction he originally hoped.

Blanchard started looking at transferring to D-III schools so he could play right away. He considered 10-time national champion Mt. Union (Ohio), where his brother Derek was a two-time All-America offensive lineman.

But Blanchard liked the success at Whitewater and the proximity to home up U.S. Route 12. The atmosphere that was reminiscent of what he experienced in high school.

"The community has a great sense of what the football team is doing," Blanchard said. "It's big-time for a D-III school."

Blanchard has put up big-time numbers in two seasons as a starter en route to becoming one of 10 finalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, the top award in D-III football. This year he has passed for 2,301 yards with 20 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

His numbers of 2,132 yards and 21 touchdowns with only 1 interception last season could have been even better if he hadn't missed the entire postseason run because of a broken thumb.

"It definitely was (difficult), I'm not going to lie," said Blanchard, who has been receiving some NFL interest. "It was extremely difficult to deal with, how it was supposed to be my time to lead this team through the playoffs.

"I realized it was going to be a different role I had to play and I had to mentor a younger quarterback (Lee Brekke) who was thrown into the fire. I couldn't throw a pity party for myself and I had to make sure I would be as good a leader as I could be."

Blanchard also knew if he wanted to come back as a starter this year he had better be ready during spring ball and in the preseason. It underscores the level of competition and depth in the program.

Norris received some playing time and occasional starts his first two years before earning a starting spot this year. Senior Alex Misialek (Crystal Lake South) is Norris' backup on the depth chart and freshman Pat Suffield (Montini) is the backup center.

"It's great, the amount of talent we have everywhere," Norris said. "It's amazing to be a part of that group and work with these guys day in and day out. It's just an awesome experience."

Ford also worked his way into a starting spot this year. He has caught 24 passes for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns, and combined with his blocking, was an honorable mention all-conference selection.

Cortez made the all-conference second team defense. His 46 tackles are tied for second on the team and he has 7 tackles for losses and 3 interceptions.

The ultimate goal, however, is to end up with the championship trophy once again. But Blanchard, Norris, Ford and Cortez were well-prepared for the pressure from their backgrounds in successful high school programs.

"I'm definitely used to it being in coach (Mike) Donatucci's system," Ford said of the Fremd coach who just retired with the most wins in Mid-Suburban League history. "You don't want to be known as the group of seniors that didn't get it done.

"While I would definitely compare this year to the team teams of 2009 and 2010, you go into each week and get that 'What if feeling. Is this going to be the week?'

"There is pressure on us and every team is going to come up and give us their best shot because they have nothing to lose. For the most part we've handled that pressure."

It's the type of pressure Ford and his teammates were looking for when they came to Whitewater.