Rising to the occasion

More news about: UW-Whitewater
After getting hit on the goal line in midseason, Jake Kumerow had a couple of down weeks. But he's scored six touchdowns in the playoffs, including three vs. Linfield.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

By Brian Lester

Jake Kumerow has owned a lot of matchups this season. It's why he has turned into UW-Whitewater's top receiving threat.

So the fact that he rose to the occasion in the fifth-ranked Warhawks' 28-17 come-from-behind win over Linfield in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA playoffs on Saturday is not a surprise at all.

Kumerow made three big-time catches in three big-time moments as he caught the final three touchdown passes of the game to cap a thrilling rally and put Whitewater on the doorstep of its first national championship game since 2011.

Kumerow, who finished the day with seven catches for 149 yards, including a 25-yard scoring strike in the third quarter that put the Warhawks ahead to stay 21-17,  said his success against Linfield all came down to winning the matchup.

"I knew I had the advantage because they were playing one-on-one, and I knew I could make plays if I just attacked the coverage," Kumerow said. "We work hard every day in practice on executing our offense and we definitely did that when it mattered on Saturday."

It could have gone so much differently for Whitewater last weekend. The Warhawks (13-0) fell behind 17-0 and overcoming a deficit that big in the postseason is anything but easy.

Yet, with quarterback Matt Behrendt throwing for 275 yards and four touchdowns and the defense posting a shutout in the second half and allowing 398 total yards, Whitewater roared back to life.

"We had our backs to the wall," said sixth-year head coach Lance Leipold. "But we didn't panic. We went about our business and fought back. I have to give a lot of credit to our assistant coaches. They had us stick with what we had done all year and we found a way to win."

Kumerow certainly played a big part in the success, but he has been stepping up all season, illustrating just how far he has come as a wide receiver since transferring in from the University of Illinois last year.

In 2012, Kumerow, who saw time as a backup at Illinois, caught only 21 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns.

It's been a decidedly different story this season. Kumerow is in a zone. Through 13 games, he has made 69 catches and has racked up 1,198 yards. He has 17 touchdown catches as well.

"Jake has certainly been a pleasant story for us," Leipold said. "It's been neat to watch his transformation in the way he has approached the game and his academics. He has made a lot of strides and has matured a great deal. He's worked hard on and off the field, including in the weight room, and pays so much more attention to detail."

Kumerow wasn't sure where he was headed after he left Illinois, but he had a pretty good idea of where he wanted to continue his football career.

Whitewater had been familiar to him because his sister, Cortney, was a star basketball player at the school, helping the Warhawks finish last season as the national runner-up.

"I originally looked into coming here out of high school," Kumerow said. "I had gone up there a lot to watch my sister play basketball and I really liked the school. I knew if I ever needed to transfer, Whitewater was my best option. They take football seriously here and have had a lot of success."

Jake Kumerow's dad, Eric Kumerow, was an NFL first-round draft pick and played for the Dolphins and the Bears.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

Kumerow said he and his sister were competitive growing up and share a tight relationship.

"We are definitely very close and she is a great athlete," Kumerow said. "I'm glad I was able to end up here, too."

At the time Kumerow arrived on campus, Whitewater was coming off its third consecutive national championship. But the Warhawks didn't make the playoffs in 2012 and it hurt.

"We thought we could just coast through the season because of what we had done in the past, but obviously you can't do that and expect to be successful," Kumerow said. "We all came back hungry. We put in a lot of time in the offseason and worked hard in practice."

The hard work has certainly paid off for the Warhawks, who will square off with third-ranked Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-0) on Saturday in Texas in a national semifinal at Crusader Stadium. It will be the third playoff meeting between the two schools. The Warhawks won both times, winning 16-7 in 2007 and picking up a 39-13 win a year later.

The hard work has also paid off for Kumerow, who said the addition of wide receivers coach Alan Hensell has made a major impact in how he has played this season.

"He's really taken advantage of the talent we have at receiver and has utilized us the right way," Kumerow said. "He has put us in a great position to make plays."

The time Kumerow dedicated to offseason workouts didn't hurt either.

"I improved myself as an all-around player," Kumerow said. "I've gotten stronger, I've done a better job of making plays and I have a better understanding of the offense and what it takes to be successful at this level."

Kumerow and the Warhawks will need to take their game to another level to have success against the Crusaders on the road. Leipold said it's no secret what his team has to do to survive and advance in the postseason one more time.

"We have to be sound in all three phases of the game," Leipold said. "We can't give up big plays, we have to be good in special teams and we have to find a way to make some big plays. Mary Hardin-Baylor is an outstanding football team and we know them pretty well. Playing them on the road will be a challenge, but it's a challenge we are looking forward to."

Although making a long trip can take its toll on a team, especially this late in the year when the wear and tear of a long season is a little bit tougher to deal with, Leipold said the trip does have its advantages.

"The players are excited because they get to get on a charter plane and fly to a game, which is something that doesn't happen too often for Division III athletes," Leipold said. "It also gives us a chance to get closer as a team. We're excited about the opportunity and our players will be ready to go."

Whether a trip to Salem is up next for the Warhawks remains to be seen.

But what is for certain is that Kumerow is ready to embrace the opportunity and hopes to continue to help his team build on what it has already accomplished during this bounce-back year for a program with a great deal of pride and tradition.

"We're happy to still be playing and we know that every team at this point is very good," Kumerow said. "We've worked hard to get here and we know we are going to have to be at our best to get a win this week. We've stayed focused all year and we will be focused on this game only this week. Hopefully we can do enough to get the win and have a shot at the title."