Wabash College has been picked to win the NCAC football title by the conference coaches.
Makes total sense.
The Little Giants return 11 starters from their league title team in 2019.
But the unknown surrounding the 2021 season is greater than any certainty.
A few teams, like Wabash’s nearby rival DePauw, played a spring schedule this past spring — but the Little Giants elected to focus on themselves and prepare for this fall.
“The added weirdness from the last 18 months, is nobody really knows how good they are. We may think we are really really good, but you don’t know what Wittenberg or DePauw or whomever looks like,” Wabash College football coach Don Morel said during media day on Thursday afternoon. “I was a part of the decision not to play, and I think we made the right decision. We did our best to get 15 really good practices in. And the goal was not to be ready for the first game of spring football, but really to be ready for camp. And I think we achieved that.”
There’s also an added incentive to perform well on the gridiron.
Wabash opened up fall camp on Thursday morning — trotting onto a new field in their home stadium with select media members in attendance and a growing buzz by the Wabash community.
A $13 million stadium that in Wabash Athletics athletic director Matt Tanney’s words, ‘completes the Little Giants facilities.’
“This really was the missing link in our athletic facility portfolio and I think this really rounds that out,” Tanney said. “Our football team is one of the winningest Division III programs in the country and we now have a facility that reflects that. And facilities talk and they say a lot about how an institution values their student experience and how it values its’ programs.”
Suites, tv booth, air conditioned game ops room, and a W Club Lounge for members to mingle and enjoy food and beverages.
And that’s just the press box, which is an addition to a brand new turf surface and 8-lane track with a tunnel entering the field honoring past Little Giants in all sports.
“This place is just such a monument to the Wabash men who played here before and are passionate not just about Wabash football, but about Wabash College,” Morel said.
The history includes Frank Navarro. The coach that led the Little Giants to a national championship game berth in 1977. Navarro passed away earlier this season, but the new field will forever bear his name.
“We had an event for coach Navarro in February of 2019,” Morel added. “Great man. It took me about two minutes with him to understand this guy is the person who set the modern day tradition of winning at Wabash College. Coach Navarro built a winning program here in the 70s.”
The playing field itself, sandwiched between the Allen Athletics and Recreation Center and Jennison Street on the south side of the Wabash campus, essentially couldn’t be moved from its previous location — creating an early challenge when a number of anonymous Wabash alumni helped put up the funds for the new stadium.
“There were a couple challenges that we recognized really early on, including the rail-line right behind the stadium along Jennison,” Tanney said. “That kind of boxes us in a little bit geographically, but I think our architecture and design teams did a really nice job of designing a space that still maximizes the room that we have.”
Smith helped construct stadium
Returning offensive lineman and senior Dane Smith from Mooresville, served as a summer intern with F.A. Wilhelm Construction Co. last summer and was a member of the construction crew that built the new Little Giant Stadium.
“I have both sides of it,” he said. “I have the construction side of things. I know exactly how it came together and the different obstacles and the hoops we had to jump through as a team and they’re very similar to the obstacles and hoops the football team is going to have to jump through.”
Despite virtual meetings last summer and fall and a limited spring practice schedule in 2021, Thursday was the first opportunity for Wabash players to lace up the cleats and throw the pads on since their Division III playoff loss to eventual national champion North Central in November of 2019.
“With COVID and everything, it’s been two years since I’ve put on some pads and got to run out there and run around with the first practice today,” safety Kam Ferguson said. “And it was good to get out there and get physical a little bit so I’m excited.”
And the goals for 2021 remain the same. Win the Monon Bell game, win the NCAC, and make a deep run in the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of anticipation and we really want to get out on the field and show what we can do,” punter Joey Annee said. “We are a really good football team from top to bottom and I think we are going to make a really good run through the playoffs this year.”
Thompson back for junior season
With 11 starters returning from 2019, half of them are on offense, which averaged over 27 points per game two years ago.
“Clearly I’m a genius and in 2019 I foresaw a pandemic coming, so I started a bunch of freshmen,” Morel chuckled. “We are super excited to have all those kids back. If you remember in 2019 we got beat in the first round of the playoffs. That was the bad news, the good news is we started six freshman on offense in that football game. Our returning kids are incredible. Great representatives of this institution and great people. And then the cherry on top of all the ice cream is they’re very good football players.”
Quarterback Liam Thompson is one of those freshmen from 2019, and recently embraced a week full of tips and pointers from the Manning family at the Manning Passing Academy.
“It was definitely a humbling experience, especially being around all those guys and a bunch of legendary people in football,” Thompson said. “I took a lot away from it just picking their brains about how they prepare, what they do off the field, what they do on the field and kind of how they lead a team and I’m hoping to implement those types of things in getting ready for this season and as the season goes along.”
Wabash opens the 2021 campaign at Rose-Hulman in Terre Haute on Saturday, Sep. 4 at 7 p.m., before celebrating Homecoming, Senior Day, Hall of Fame Weekend and the dedication of the new stadium against Allegheny College on Saturday, Sep. 18 at 2 p.m.
They will also host DePauw in the 127th Monon Bell Classic on Saturday, Nov. 13 in hopes of returning the Monon Bell to Crawfordsville.
“I think it’s just an awesome opportunity to have everyone excited for one common goal and that’s not just to play in a new stadium, but that’s to bring back the bell,” Smith said. “That’s to win football games and unite our campus again.”