Monday, December 16, 2013

Haven’t We Met Before?

By Jonathan Lowe

Sports hold a special place in my heart. And if you’re reading this column, it's more than likely they cast a spell over you, too. But for what reason? Is it the graceful ballet that athletes can provide? Is it the brutality of a pseudo-gladiator environment? Is it the danger exhibited by speed and force? Sure, all of those things can be true.

However, don't discount the effect of a good, old-fashioned rivalry. For a team, it's offer a sense of validation, even in a poor season. For fans, it's a shot at "rising above" that insufferable opponent. Whether the deep-seeded hatred arises from simple territorial geography or simple history, the most important foe to vanquish is your rival.

In college football's top division, the last week of the season is dedicated to them. Legends are made through their misery. Coaches are fired because of them (sometimes). And, in some instances, national championships are decided directly because of them. But when you're talking about Division I, those specific make-or-break matchups come once a generation (save the recent run of the Iron Bowl). Over the last decade, one matchup has had a direct impact on a championship title.

Granted, we don't talk that much about Division III football on this site. (Heck, I don't know if we ever have). However, when you have something that continues to happen, it's worth noting. On December 14th, Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater survived very formidable challenges in their respective national semifinal games. The victories by the Purple Raiders and the Warhawks sets up a familiar title tilt.

From 2005-2011, there was no other program that could replace these two in their division's premier game. After a one-year hiatus, the newly-minted rivals will be back at it with the ultimate prize on the line. Mount Union has 11 crowns to their credit, but they haven't been dominant when it comes to their Wisconsin friends. Over their previous seven meetings, Whitewater actually leads the series 4-3 after winning the last three meetings. Now the Raiders get their opportunity for payback, while the Warhawks seek to become just the second program since 1973 to win five championships.

I understand that this game won't be covered the same way that the BCS Championship Game, the World Series, or the Super Bowl will be. However, if you think this game doesn't matter at the next level, I'd disagree. While the impact these colleges have on the NFL is minimal, this particular rivalry has helped shine the light on a few exceptions to the big-time rule.

Former wide receiver Derek Stanley might not have lifted a trophy, but he helped build the Warhawk program to its current status before getting drafted in 2007. Washington wideout Pierre Garcon just missed out on a three-peat with the Raiders before making an impression on Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Cecil Shorts III followed Garcon's path at Mount Union, converting from QB to WR. He brought attention to his potential during the 2009 DIII Championship, and although the current Jacksonville Jaguar lost the last two shots at Whitewater, he was part of the team that won the 2008 meeting.

We've been taught that greatness, in any sport, is hard to achieve, and even more difficult to sustain. The journey to be the best, the pressure to keep it going, and the drive to pass complacency are big enough for one entity to handle. So what happens when not one, but two programs create this much success over this long of a period? Combining the familiarity, the respect, and the stakes, you have, in my opinion, the ultimate rivalry. And, despite my usual aversion to this kind of consistency, we're lucky enough to witness it unfold again in 2013.

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