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On Campus: Local alums help guide Wisconsin-Whitewater to Division III semifinals

Kyle Koelblinger was a freshman at Prairie Ridge High School when he first saw Alex Peete carry a football.

“My older brother (Nik) was a starter at Prairie Ridge and we went down to the University of Illinois for the state championship game,” Koelblinger said of that 2016 Wolves team.

The night before the Prairie Ridge game, Koelblinger and others went to Memorial Stadium to watch another game, which turned out to be Peete’s Johnsburg High School team.

“He was incredible then, and he’s still really excellent at what he does now,” Koelblinger said.

These days the two are teammates at third-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater, which plays Saturday in the NCAA Division III semifinals.

Peete paces a powerful offense for Whitewater (13-0) with 25 rushing touchdowns and 1,403 yards. Peete, a senior, leads the nation in rushing touchdowns, many of which Koelblinger has enjoyed from the sidelines while the defense is resting.

“It’s really cool to watch,” said Koelblinger, a freshman safety. “Some of the cuts that Alex makes at the line of scrimmage are just really incredible. There are not many players who can do what he does. He’s very special.”

Over the team’s past six games, the 5-foot-8, 215-pound senior has rushed for 880 yards and 13 touchdowns. In those six games, including three playoff victories, the Warhawks have outscored their opponents, 282-51.

While the Warhawks did not play in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Peete added nearly 10 pounds and focused on his speed.

“I feel like I got faster,” he said. “I got more comfortable at my weight. I got quicker off my cuts, being reactionary. When I see something, I just trust myself and go with it.”

In the 2019 national title game loss to North Central, Peete was at 207 pounds and not nearly as comfortable.

“I’m able to break away on those big runs now,” said Peete, who credited the Whitewater offensive line, wide receivers and tight ends for their blocking skills. “An outside linebacker who has a good angle on me, I’m able to outrun them now versus having to make a move on them.”

While Koelblinger has appreciated Peete from the sideline, the same admiration exists the other way.

Prairie Ridge graduate Kyle Koelblinger is starting at safety for 13-0 Wisconsin-Whitewater, which plays Saturday in the NCAA Division III semifinals.

Prairie Ridge graduate Kyle Koelblinger is starting at safety for 13-0 Wisconsin-Whitewater, which plays Saturday in the NCAA Division III semifinals. (Michael McLoone/UW-Whitewater Athletics/)

The Warhawks took notice of their freshman safety when he made two interceptions and had a fumble recovery in an October victory against UW-River Falls.

“All of a sudden, he came out of nowhere,” Peete said. “He has natural ball ability. The plays that he’s making are confident plays. He sees something and he trusts his ability. As a young guy that’s important, especially as a defensive back.”

As a 2020 high school graduate, Koelblinger had the opportunity to practice for a full year in the Whitewater defense before taking the field on Saturdays. Though his season started slowly, he is now a starter.

“Being able to get some on-field, game reps in college has allowed me to feel more comfortable with my responsibilities,” he said. “When I feel comfortable, I can start to play more freely and make some plays.”

Koelblinger’s previous experience also helps out in big games.

“Look where he played high school,” Peete said. “He played for a really good football team. That’s a big thing when players come from being on a big stage already. He’s able to handle pressure.”

The Warhawks host No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor from Texas at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Whitewater defense also includes defensive linemen and Huntley grads Justin Allen, a sophomore with four sacks, and Matt Burba, a freshman with 3.5 sacks.

Missing an entire season has the six-time national champion Warhawks eager to continue their playoff run.

“I’m not going to lie,” Peete said. “It’s been a long wait. You look forward to these (playoff) games, but you have to focus on what’s in front of you first. These are the moments we love.”

In the other national semifinal, 2019 national champion and top-ranked North Central College of Naperville travels to Mount Union of Ohio for an 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday.

Both national semifinals will air online on ESPN-Plus. The winners advance to the Stagg Bowl, the D-III national final, Dec. 17 in Canton, Ohio.

Cary-Grove grad Dan Gilroy, a junior defensive end, has a team-leading 11.5 tackles for loss for the Cardinals (12-0) to go with six sacks. The defensive unit also includes Hampshire grad Nic Rummell, a sophomore defensive back with three interceptions. The North Central defense has held opponents to 11.1 points a game.

Olson shines at UCF: Cary-Grove grad Amber Olson, a senior at Central Florida, was named the American Athletic Conference Setter of Year Nov. 30 and was part of the All-AAC first team in volleyball.

Olson averaged 9.94 assists per set this season, which ranked third in the conference. During AAC matches, she averaged a league-best 11.16 assists.

The Knights (27-7) ended their season in the second round of the NCAA tournament Dec. 5 with a five-set loss to No. 13 UCLA. This season marked the second time in the past three years that the program has won a first-round NCAA game.

UCF went 19-1 in conference play to earn the AAC championship this fall.

Keegan, Michigan thrive: In his first year as a starter on the University of Michigan offensive line, Crystal Lake South grad Trevor Keegan helped the Wolverines to a No. 2 national ranking, a spot in the Dec. 31 College Football Playoff semifinals and a Big Ten Conference championship.

The 6-foot-6, 324-pound Keegan also was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the league’s coaches and media members. Keegan started 10 games this fall for the Wolverines (12-1).

Michigan ranks 10th nationally in rushing offense (223.8 yards a game) and the offensive line is among the candidates for the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the nation’s top O-line.

• Barry Bottino writes about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at barryoncampus@hotmail.com and follow @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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