Late-season turnaround: Tigers win final three games to finish 4-5 this season


The Dakota Wesleyan University football team took control of a spiraling season in time to reverse its fortunes.

What looked to have similarities to the 5-17 record it owned over the prior two seasons, the Tigers found a groove amidst injuries and COVID-19 to win their final three games. DWU (4-5) finished with a losing record for the third consecutive season, but it won its most games since 2017.

“We had to play 11 games last year just to win three and we got nine games in and won four of them,” Ross Cimpl said after coaching DWU to a 28-17 win over Concordia (Neb.) to end the season on Saturday. “We have a bunch of young guys. We only have seven seniors, but those guys are doing what's necessary and they had every reason to quit, to give up and cash it in and they didn't do it.”

Whether it was an early-season injury to Cody Reichelt, which kept the Mitchell native sidelined for the majority of the year, a shortened offseason or acclimating to new offensive coordinator Steve Schneider, DWU didn’t have the same success early in the season. The Tigers started 1-5, as it allowed at least 45 points in all five losses.

DWU still dealt with injuries, such as losing wide receiver Daniel Libolt for the second half of the season, and COVID-19 forced key players to be held out nearly every week -- starting left tackle T.J. Benton and quarterback Zachary Lester both missed time due to being quarantined.


Yet, the Tigers started to finish drives with more consistency as Schneider’s impact on the offense started to be felt. They scored 29.7 points per game in their final three games, which would’ve ranked fifth in the Great Plains Athletic Conference over an entire season. And the big plays allowed on defense started to be contained. DWU didn’t allow 20 points in any of its final three games, a stretch that hasn’t happened since 2015.

"We started out 0-3 and then we go on the road and beat Doane, but ever since that game we kind of went back to our basics and kind of turned things around,” DWU senior wide receiver Spencer Neugebauer said. “To end the season 3-0 means everything, especially (to end) my career. It's the beginning foundation hopefully for what's yet to come for DWU football."

Cimpl credited the seniors for leading the late-season success. Their loss of production next season will be felt, too.

Lester’s accuracy improved through the year, throwing for 1,650 yards, 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions on 59 percent passing, including a NAIA-best 72 completions to Neugebauer, who added 772 yards and nine touchdowns. Dayne Clark also became a stalwart on the offensive line, while Caden Milmine had 15 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.

"We've never had a senior class that had to deal with their senior year like this,” Cimpl said. “When you go into your senior year it’s kind of, 'I know what's going on, this is what to expect.' They were just like everybody else. … Who is practicing today? Who is playing today? What coaches are out? Everything was a question mark and for those guys to stay steady was huge."

Turnover is expected on every team, though, and in DWU’s case, it comes after it saw multiple underclassmen thrust into action on both sides of the ball. The Tigers need to replace key contributors at important positions, but they believe they have the young experience waiting to step up.

"I just hope this season shows that we really changed things around this season and it's a stepping stone,” Neugebauer said. “But I think there's big things yet to come for this program.”


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