After a disappointing and all-too-short end to the Wheaton Football season last year, returning players and some new team members are coming into the 2018-19 season with motivation, focus and timely goals.
Head Coach Mike Swider said the team’s goal this year is to win the CCIW Championship. “You can’t do anything without winning that,” Swider said. “It’s the first step to the next thing.”
Last year, losses to North Central College and a heartbreaking loss to Illinois Wesleyan prevented the Thunder from qualifying for the NCAA Division III football playoffs. “Without a doubt NorthCentral is our toughest opponent,” Swider noted. “We have a war with them every year. It’s a knockdown, dragout fight. We play for a trophy, the little brass bell. It’s a great rivalry and great tradition.”
On Sept. 29, Wheaton will travel to North Central College for the 100th game between the two teams. This season could be a little different for the Thunder because Washington University in St. Louis is going to join the CCIW. Wheaton will make the trek to Missouri this season in October. Although the Wheaton Athletics website noted in June that there are 38 football freshmen joining Swider’s program this year, he said, “I probably in all my years here started a handful of freshmen. It’s a hard thing to do, to play early. Lineups that are dominated by juniors and seniors are always going to be your best teams.”
While the freshman class is numerous in strength, 35 seniors are also on the team this year. Swider mentioned that in his 22 years of coaching, he has not coached a larger senior class and that fact is why Swider believes the Wheaton Football team will be successful this year.
Star senior players on defense include Corey Kennedy, captain Kyle Fox and captainTyler Sigler, who is returning to the field this year after dealing with injuries the majority of the season last year. Senior captain All-Conference linebacker Eric Stevenson will continue to make an impact on the field as well as senior linebackers Daniel Herber and Jacob Killeen. On the defensive line, senior Patrick O’Connell will lead the Thunder charge.
Offensively, Wheaton will greatly appreciate the return of their captain and veteran senior quarterback Curtis McWilliams, and strong offensive lineman consisting of senior captain Andrew Jones, senior Braedon Parker and two consistent junior players. Other offensive stars include senior tight ends Tyler Pace and Luke Van Dyke and senior wide receiver Carter Roberts.
“That [the large and skilled senior class] is why we are going to be good this year,” Swider said. Non-seniors include wide receiver Phillip Nichols and sophomore running back TJWilliams. Williams will have to fill the shoes of Wheaton’s star running back from last year Sola Olateju, who signed with the Bloomington Edge and will play in the Indoor Football League, according to Wheaton’s Athletic website.
“A Wheaton football player learns that what he’s gaining far exceeds the benefits of what he’s getting on the field,” Swider said. “They’re seeing it through because they understand the impact that it’s having on their life.”
It can be difficult for college athletes to stay motivated over the summer, but the seniors each ensure that their teammates keep Thunder football as their priority by leading small groups.
There are 21-22 small groups – with five kids in each – that meet once a week. Spiritually, socially and academically they hold each other accountable. “It’s like a big church; you can get lost in the church. It’s no different with football,” Swider said. “Every small group has one person in every class” Wheaton’s first game of the season will also be their only non-CCIW game of the year.
On Sept. 1 at 1 p.m., the Thunder football season will kickoff against Monmouth College at McCully Stadium.