UW-Platteville’s Eric Siedenburg (center) and Tyler Reinhardt make a tackle during their game against UW-River Falls last season in Platteville, Wis. Both players return and should be a key part of the Pioneers’ defense this season.

Last season was a rude awakening for UW-Platteville.

There’s been plenty to cheer about inside Pioneer Stadium over the previous eight seasons, where the Pioneers racked up a 53-18 overall record in that span and clinched their first-ever berth into the NCAA Division III playoff field in 2013. They followed that up with a second trip to the postseason in 2016.

But the 2018 season was different. The offense committed too many turnovers, the defense couldn’t find key stops, and the Pioneers lost three games by a touchdown or less. The usually close games with Whitewater and Oshkosh were blowouts against the Pioneers. It all resulted in a 4-6 record, their first losing season since 2009.

“That was a good thing for us to experience,” said Pioneers coach Mike Emendorfer, who enters his 21st season leading the program. “Our worst enemy was just being good. We play in the truth league. Obviously, each and every Saturday in our conference tells the truth. We lost three or four games in the last minute last year. We had plenty of opportunities to separate ourselves, but we didn’t have that sense of urgency. We’ve installed that back into the program and we’re excited to play each and every game.”

The 2019 team will share something similar with that 3-7 squad from 2009: flying under the radar in the WIAC.

For the first time in years, Platteville was picked by WIAC coaches and sports information directors to finish outside of the top three in the league standings. The Pioneers were selected fourth behind Whitewater, upstart La Crosse and then Oshkosh. Recent history would suggest otherwise, but the Pioneers are underdogs to contend for the conference title when they open the season this Saturday at home against East Texas Baptist.

“That’s been a huge point of emphasis for us this past offseason,” said senior cornerback Luke Johnson, who missed the majority of his junior season with an ankle injury. “It’s kind of weird to say, but it’s actually good for us. It’s pretty apparent that we were content as a program with where we were and relaxed a little bit. We’re working now. We’re hungry and this mold of guys this year, I can see it becoming something really special. It’s a good way to light a fire under us.”

Even in limited action, Johnson recorded 35 tackles, 16 pass break-ups and three interceptions with one returned for a touchdown last year. He’ll be a key part of a defense that is burgeoning with more stars. Junior linebacker Eric Siedenburg had a team-high 76 tackles last year, while senior defensive back Tyler Reinhardt added 66 tackles and recorded a team-best four interceptions. Linemen Alex Rezny and Jackson McMahan, linebacker Jordan Zilbar and defensive back Antonio Jose-Ramos also figure to be a vital part of the defense. Walter Ollie, a transfer safety from Loras College, also could make a difference.

“Like every defense, it starts with the defensive line and a lot of those guys are playing at a high level,” said Emendorfer, who also expects to see better production from the unit in its second year under coordinator Dan Bauder. “We have a great core of linebackers and we’re pretty deep with a lot of talent in the secondary. When Luke went down last year that caused some issues, but with him back and the other talent there we’re feeling good on the defensive end.”

Junior quarterback Colin Schuetz returns to lead the offense. In eight games last season, Schuetz threw for 1,970 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’ll be flanked in the backfield by backs Bo Babich and Wyatt Thompson. Babich scored nine touchdowns last year, while Thompson is recovering from injury and should provide another spark for the offense. Wide receiver Donald Allender caught a team-best four touchdowns a season ago.

“I think the guys we have returning and the new guys are all pretty hungry,” Schuetz said. “We don’t have any real stars like some of those names of the past, but we’re just working collectively as hard as we can. The guys are buying into the system with our own kind of savvy to them. The system has worked for many years and if we stay on course and do the right thing, we can put up those high numbers again. We have to clean up the mistakes and keep the ball off the ground, but this offense has the chance to put up some numbers.”

It’s a refreshing feeling entering this season for the Pioneers, and the program is hoping that their underdog mentality takes them back to their perch as one of the WIAC’s big dogs.

“To be honest with you, we’re a better team and I’m a better coach when we’re the underdogs,” Emendorfer said. “We’re still fighting that image that we belong in the top 10 and top 15 in the nation. We’ve been there, but we have to continue proving ourselves by playing with the best teams in the country. Now, it’s about finding a way to beat the best teams in the country. Every day, every practice, every game, it’s about giving a damn. Taking advantage of every opportunity.”

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