Although the season may have ended with a disappointing loss, the Wartburg football team completed one of the best years in program history.
The 2017 squad won the IIAC championship, posted an undefeated regular season and made it to the Elite Eight, all for the first time since 2014. Head coach Rick Willis said the senior class came into the season with a specific goal in mind.
“They were tired of hearing everyone talk about the 2014 team all the time, and they wanted to leave their own mark,” Willis said.
According to Willis, this senior class leaves a lasting legacy at Wartburg, including becoming the winningest group in Knights football history.
The graduating class will leave big holes going into next year, biggest of which could be Riley Brockway. This year, Brockway broke or tied the school record for receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. He also became the program’s leader in career catches and was named first-team All-Region as well.
The offense also graduates 2016 number one receiver Griffin Brennecke, All-Region selection Derek Schipper and other starters as well. They will, however, return 2017 IIAC MVP Matt Sacia at quarterback and breakout players Dylan Binion, over 1000 rushing yards, and Denison Harrington, second on the team with 48 catches.
Sacia was also named a finalist for the Gagliardi Trophy, an award that recognizes excellence in athletics, academics and community service, and said his success is due to the team’s overall talent.
“It’s a big thanks to all the guys on the team. Even though I get some of that recognition, you know, but it’s not possible without everyone else doing their jobs,” Sacia said.
Rob Rottler, Dillon Radamaker and Tony Anstoetter stand out as some of the biggest departures defensively. Rottler and Anstoetter led the team in tackles and Radamaker was also an All-Region selection. The team will also lose their entire starting defensive line, and the main backup at each position as well.
The team does return 3/4 of a dominant secondary, including All-Conference players freshman JoJo McNair, team leading five interceptions, and Peyton Imhof at the cornerback positions.
Rottler said he believes next year’s squad will be just fine with the returning players, and a lot of it has to do with Sacia.
“Matt Sacia is an unbelievable leader and competitor. A genuinely great guy that makes you want to fight for him every play,” Rottler said. “Couple that with a hungry group of guys waiting in the wings and a tough Wartburg tradition, I am confident they will have an excellent season and get themselves another conference title.”
This season brought Rottler, Chris McNutt and Blake Beckman all back for a fifth season and Willis said he could not have been happier for the trio.
“Having the belief in our program to commit to coming back for a fifth year after a disappointing previous year and to have it work out for them the way it did, that’s how you want it to happen” Willis said.
Some of the biggest areas where new players will have to step up include the defensive line and the wide receiver core, Willis said.
Even with all the success this year’s team reached, Willis said the biggest challenge for the next group will be not getting complacent and it starts in the offseason.
“In the offseason you always spend time establishing the new identity of the team and who the new leaders are, those things are awfully important,” Willis said.