No. 7 ranked University of Wisconsin-Whitewater football team broke a tie with a late field goal and made a defensive stop in the closing minutes Saturday for a 35-32 victory over No. 8 St. John's (Minn.) in an instant classic semifinal game of the NCAA Division III Championship at Perkins Stadium.
The Warhawks (13-1 overall) will head to Stagg Bowl XLVII, the Division III national championship game, for the 10th time in the last 15 years and face North Central (Ill.) for the title this Friday at 7 p.m. in Shenandoah, Texas.
Junior kicker Wojciech Gasienica (Norridge, Ill./Ridgewood) put UW-Whitewater ahead for good with 2:10 remaining in the contest on a 37-yard field goal, his fourth kick through the uprights of the contest.
The Johnnies (12-2) returned the ensuing kickoff to their own 42-yard line, but senior linebacker Matt Anderson (Rockford, Ill./Lutheran) posted an interception on the first play from scrimmage.
Junior running back Alex Peete (Ringwood, Ill./Johnsburg) recorded a 16-yard run on second down, and the Warhawks knelt out the clock to return to the national championship game for the first time since 2014.
Junior quarterback Max Meylor (Mt. Horeb, Wis./Mt. Horeb) tallied 188 yards passing with one touchdown and 85 yards rushing with one score. Junior wide receiver Ryan Wisniewski (Sparta, Wis./Sparta) tallied four receptions for 96 yards and added a rushing touchdown, and junior wide receiver Derek Kumerow (Bartlett, Ill./South Elgin) collected five receptions for 45 yards and a score. Peete and senior running back Ronny Ponick (Stanley, Wis./Stanley-Boyd) combined for 81 yards.
Senior defensive back Nate Tranel (Lancaster, Wis./Lancaster), junior linebacker Kaleb Kaminski (Tomahawk, Wis./Tomahawk) and junior defensive back Tommy Matoska (Pleasant Prairie, Wis./Kenosha Tremper) totaled seven tackles apiece to lead the defense. Senior defensive lineman Jordan Brand (Chicago, Ill./St. Rita) registered five tackles, including three of UW-Whitewater's seven sacks. Senior defensive lineman Justin Hansen (Beloit, Wis./Turner) and freshman defensive lineman Niko Lemke (Salem, Wis./Westosha Central) finished with two sacks apiece.
St. John's took the lead near the midway point of the first quarter on a seven-play, 60-yard drive. The Warhawks responded with a seven-play, 47-yard drive capped by Gasienica's 31-yard field goal with 4:10 on the clock.
UW-Whitewater forced a punt on the next drive, and sophomore running back Jaylon Edmonson (Racine, Wis./Case) found a gap and blocked the kick through the back of the end zone for a safety with 2:23 left in the period.
After a punt, the Warhawks recovered a fumble on the first play of the next drive, and Gasienica hit a 27-yard field goal for an 8-7 lead 19 seconds into the second quarter.
From there, the two teams traded touchdown drives on two separate occasions into halftime.
UW-Whitewater took a 15-14 advantage with 4:14 remaining in the second on a Wisniewski 4-yard touchdown run. The drive was keyed by his own 17-yard reception from Meylor on third down two plays earlier.
Following a touchdown by the Johnnies with 1:47 to go in the half, the Warhawks drove 63 yards on 11 plays as Meylor hit Kumerow on third-and-goal for a 6-yard score three plays after a 22-yard run to put UW-W inside the 10-yard line.
UW-Whitewater carried a 22-21 lead into halftime, but St. John's took the lead back with 4:37 left in the third quarter on a field goal that capped a 16-play, 72-yard drive.
The Warhawks took the lead on the next drive as Gasienica's attempt from 22 yards split the uprights with just over a minute to go in the period.
Following a punt by SJU, Meylor gave UW-Whitewater an eight-point lead on a 38-yard run with 13:47 to play in the contest. He set up the touchdown drive with a 19-yard completion to junior wide receiver JT Parish (Cambridge, Wis./Cambridge) that put the Warhawks in St. John's territory.
The Johnnies scored a touchdown and converted the 2-point attempt to tie the contest at 32-32 near the midway point of the quarter.
UW-Whitewater converted a pair of third downs on the ensuing drive, including a 17-yard strike from Meylor to Kumerow on third-and-8 from near midfield, to set up Gasienica for his go-ahead field goal.
The following UW-Whitewater student-athletes are members of the UW-Whitewater football team, which will compete for a national championship:
Ryne Faulk of El Paso (El Paso-Gridley High School), a freshman majoring in Business.
Merritt Stott of Metamora (Metamora Township High School), a senior majoring in Finance.
For more than 150 years, UW-Whitewater has provided students with the education and training to begin their careers with a solid foundation behind them. The UW-Whitewater is committed to the development of the individual, the growth of personal and professional integrity and respect for diversity and global perspectives. These are met by providing academic and co-curricular programs that emphasize the pursuit of knowledge and understanding and a commitment to service within a safe and secure environment.