Veteran depth and fresh talent

The Wheaton Thunder will be rolling into the 2017-2018 season high and mighty. After finishing 11-2 last year, the Thunder grabbed the top spot in the CCIW preseason poll, receiving 61 points and five first-place votes.

In the postseason last year, the Thunder beat out Huntington College and North Central in the first two rounds of the NCAA DIII Playoffs. Their playoff run ended after losing to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the Quarterfinals.

Coming into the 2017 season, the Thunder boasts an impressive 70 upperclassmen, including 35 seniors — one of the largest groups the team has ever had. Head Coach Mikey Swider feels confident with his large group of older players, saying that the juniors and seniors “know what it takes to win games.”

With several starters from past seasons returning, the Thunder has a lot of talent, experience and leadership to work with. In addition to their returning players, Wheaton will have 28 newcomers to the field.

Two notable returning players include seniors Kyler Kregel, who played center, and Chase Greenlee, a defensive end. Kregel and Greenlee were both named preseason All-Americans by D3football.com. Kregel was named to the First Team, improving from his Second Team selection last year. Greenlee was recognized as a Second Team All American. Last season, he received a honorable mention by D3football.com.

On offense, Wheaton has four returning All-CCIW players from the 2016 year. In addition to All-American Kregel, the Thunder will have six other starters returning. Senior Sola Olateju returns at running back, and at wide receiver, senior Trey Hanley is coming out for his final season after leading the Thunder with 836 receiving yards in 2016.

The most noticeable gap in the offense can be seen at quarterback. According to Swider, there are four contenders for the spot of starter: Senior Curtis McWilliams, junior Jesse Furrow, and freshmen Spencer Peterson and David Beamer.

In the 2015 season, McWilliams missed all of last season due to an injury. Furrow was five-of-six in 2015 and six-of-11 in 2016 for passing with 99 yards and a touchdown last year. Neither Beamer nor Peterson have to taken the field for the Thunder.

In regards to the other side of the ball, Swider stated, “We have a wealth of talent on the defensive line.” Defensive players to watch include Dallas McRae, a transfer from Southern Utah, seniors Chase Greenlee, Noah Spielman, Tyler Sigler and Kyle Fox, junior Eric Stevenson and sophomore Patrick O’Connell. The Thunder defense had more sacks than any other Division III team.

Greenlee lead the defense in sacks with 14 for the 2016 season. He also contributed 61 total tackles. Spielman was equally devastating on defense for the Thunder, getting 41 total tackles while battling injuries throughout the season. In his freshman season, O’Connell came out swinging on the defensive line, recording 36 total tackles and 12 sacks. His efforts gained him recognition on the Second Team All-CCIW.

Southern Utah transfer Dallas McRae will be joining the Thunder defensive line this year. McRae has already proven to Wheaton’s coaches during practices that he can really play based upon what they’ve seen.

Behind the defensive line, the Thunder secondary also has considerable talent. Last season, Sigler transitioned from safety to cornerback — a move that seems to have brought nothing but good things. Swider remarked that “he is arguably one of the best cornerbacks in the country.”

Fox is returning to start at safety after having 44 tackles last year. Alongside him will be fellow senior Nick Blazek, who had 38 tackles and an interception. Safety Corey Kennedy will be one of the new faces on the team, transferring from Northern Illinois.

Swider showed that the Thunder will take no time to celebrate the accomplishments of yesteryear, remarking, “What [we] did last year is great, but this year has yet to be played.”

The Thunder open their season Sept. 2 at Benedictine University, and come back to play their first home game Sept. 16 against Carthage College.

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