The Wheaton football team is heading to San Antonio to kick off their 2022 season on Saturday with a game against Trinity University. Each year, the Thunder coaches pick a theme. This year, it’s “Fearless,” and the team is pressing into this idea as they prepare for their first game.
Fearlessness is something the team is going to need as they embark on a tough regular season schedule with a roster composed of many new faces following the loss of several fifth-year seniors who got an extra season of eligibility due to the pandemic-affected 2020 season.
Among the biggest losses were defensive lineman Dallas McRae and All-Region kicker Tommy Gallagher. But their graduation has given players such as sophomore Caleb Mary and grad transfer Josh Winnette the chance to step up. Helping their transition will be returnees like senior running back Gio Weeks and senior offensive lineman and team captain Trevor Gabriele.
Head Coach Jesse Scott said this year’s theme can be a guide for how to navigate the questions that come up with a new team and new relationships.
“The starting place of our first meeting this year was my challenge to our players to believe, trust and understand that the answers were in the room,” said Jesse Scott, the head coach of the Thunder.
Last season, the Thunder finished with a 10-2 record and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. They also ranked in the top 10 in eight different team categories in Division III, including first in team sacks and blocked punts.
Despite turnover, expectations for this year’s team are high. Wheaton ranked ninth in Lindy’s Sports college football preseason magazine and eighth in the NCAA Division III preseason rankings.
Nonetheless, the Thunder are staying focused on the season ahead. “Coach Scott always says ‘burn the script,’ meaning don’t let the opinions of man affect the way we play,” said Weeks. “We delight in the fact that we can get better as a team every day. Rankings don’t mean a whole lot to me.”
The coaches anticipate a competitive season-opener in Texas on Saturday. Kickoff is at 6 p.m. at the Trinity Football Stadium in San Antonio. The two teams, who have never played each other before, are evenly matched, at least on paper. Trinity and Wheaton are ranked eighth and ninth, respectively, in the NCAA III this season. Last week, in their own season opener, Trinity defeated Sul Ross State University 55-7.
“We’re going to have our hands full in order for us to accomplish what we want,” said Scott, speaking about the opener. “We’re going to have to come out and play our best from the first whistle to the last.”
Jeff Peltz, assistant coach and the team’s spiritual coordinator, said he wants the team to play in a loving way, with sportsmanship at the forefront.
“We want to play so hard and so well, that the guys on the other side of us know how much we love them,” said Peltz. “And if we do that, the rest will be taken care of.”
The team regularly participates in small groups – led exclusively by seniors – in order to foster community and vulnerability among each other. The “fearless” theme will be part of the focus of these small group sessions.
“[The seniors are] mentoring the guys that will be leading, and that’s the microcosm of how we move our whole football team in one direction,” said Peltz.
The ultimate goal for the team, according to Peltz, is not only to win, but also to form lifelong friendships through the football program.
“They just don’t stop when they graduate. There’s a phrase, ‘Once a Wheaton football player, always a Wheaton football player.’ Over forty years time, I have seen that over and over and over. When someone’s in need, someone is helping,” Peltz continued.
According to Peltz, the team also works hard to foster good people.
“Football is gonna be over someday. And ultimately the goal is to be Christ followers, good husbands and good fathers,” said Peltz.
Saturday’s game will be streamed on the Wheaton College Thunder Website. The Thunder’s first home game will be against Illinois Wesleyan University on Sept. 17 at McCully Stadium.