|Ronny Ponick hurdles through a hole against St. Norbert. He's run for 450 yards and five touchdowns in three playoff games.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
By Joe Sager
|Alex Peete has rushed for 397 yards and six touchdowns in the three postseason games.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
Pound the rock.
That theme has resonated with UW-Whitewater, especially when the program claimed six national championships in an eight-year span from 2007-2014.
The formula has helped the Warhawks reach the national semifinals after a two-year absence.
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And, much like UW-Whitewater’s last national championship team in 2014, this year’s squad is racking up the yards with two primary rushers in Alex Peete and Ronny Ponick. In 2014, Dennis More ran for 1,107 yards, while Jordan Ratliffe was at 950. This fall, Peete, a sophomore, has gained 1,210 yards, while Ronny Ponick has 806 for the Warhawks (12-0), who visit Mary Hardin-Baylor (13-0) on Saturday.
“Running the football is a huge piece of our identity as a program. That really comes from a fantastic offensive line, which we have and one that’s really grown together. Nate Trewyn is the only senior on that line and he’s done a great job of leading the others,” UW-Whitewater coach Kevin Bullis said. “With Ronny and Alex, they weren’t on anybody’s radar coming into the year. Ronny got some reps last year and, when got in there, he shined and surprised us. Alex was a freshman last year. A couple times, he got in there here and had some great plays.
Coming into the year, we had Jarrod Ware, who had some experience. He suffered an injury early in the season and those two guys just grabbed the reins of the running back positon in a manner that is shocking. They were immature at the beginning of the season, but they are mature now after playing 13 games. That really stands out to me. They are a great combination.”
Both players offer contrasting styles. Peete, at 5-8, 195 pounds, is more of the speed guy, while Ponick, at 5-9, 215, is the power runner.
“Ronny is the thumper, the physical tailback. He’ll lower his shoulder and get some yards after contact. Alex is that elusive runner with great vision; he sees where people are coming from and makes people miss,” Bullis said. “That presents issues for defenses when you have two different types of tailbacks that play the game differently.”
The players realize the matchup challenge they present.
“I think it’s the best of both worlds. I think we have a lot to offer with both our styles. It really works out for us, in terms of defenses having to scheme for different things. I think we’re both clicking well and we feed off each other,” Ponick said. “Coming into this program, I knew running back is a very special position. It’s awesome to be part of it and to be in that role and help out the offense. To have a second guy there who wants it just as bad as you is great.”
The two rotate in the backfield for the Warhawks. It’s worked well as both players have eclipsed 100 yards rushing the past three weeks and remained fresh with the shared workload.
“I think our rotation and everything is nice. It’s nice for the offense. We produce the same things even though we both have different styles of running. At the end of the day, we’re getting the job done,” Peete said. “Having two guys rotate in allows us to be able to run the ball more. It’s been cool. We’re both taking advantage of it and doing what we can do.”
Of course, the two running backs credit their blockers in front of them, including starting linemen Matthew Saager, Quinn Meinerz, Bryan Behrendt, Kyle Gannon and Trewyn, tight end Jared Zausch, fullback Julio Perez and receivers Ryan Wisniewski and J.T. Parish, among others.
“With the group of guys we have up front, a lot of the credit goes to them to create gaps and we just capitalize on what we see,” Ponick said. “It’s a whole team effort.”
Peete agreed, “The line is what allows us to do everting we do. It’s nice to have the confidence in them. The same goes with the receivers. They are blocking downfield and giving extra effort. That shows the chemistry of the team and how far we’ve grown.”
The group could grow a little more. Of the starting offensive unit, only quarterback Cole Wilber and Trewyn are seniors. That makes Whitewater a favorite to contend next season, too. The group understands that and is putting in the work now.
“This is the best practicing team I have been around and I’ve coached for more than 30 years – once I reached 30 years I quit counting,” Bullis said. “Every week, I can see pieces of improvement. Really, offensively has been the biggest growth area. We began the season with basically the same defense we finished with last year. Offensively, we graduated so many people, it was a challenge early on because we had to replace so many starters. The growth has been exponential every week. It’s significant. That’s such a huge advantage for us to get an 11th, 12th and 13th game. We’re taking advantage of that and continuing to grow as an offense.”
For now, the Warhawks’ focus is on The Cru, though. The team allows just 77.2 yards rushing per game. Peete and Ponick hope to shatter that number.
“It’s very exciting. We are just ready to go,” Peete said. “Obviously, they are a very good team. We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game. It’s awesome to play good teams in the playoffs and still be playing in December.”
“I couldn’t be happier. The last time I was having this much fun in football was when I won a state title in high school as a junior. Being able to play in December is a special feeling. I feel this group is special and great to be around,” Ponick said. “Mary Hardin-Baylor is fast and physical. Thy play a similar style to us. They’ll be coming ready to play. We have to match that and take advantage of this opportunity.”