They’re one of the best kept-secrets in Delaware even though they have one of the best teams in Delaware, in any sport and at any level.
Welcome to Wesley College football, the team that usually wins almost all of its games except the final one. The Wolverines are once again ranked in the Top 10 among all Division III teams, and their current No. 7 ranking is actually a step down from the lofty perch they usually occupy.
Last year, Wesley was ranked No.1 in the nation for much of the season and they’re usually a Top 5 team or higher, which is even more impressive when you consider that more than 250 schools play Division III football. The Wolverines have never been able to climb to the top of the mountain and win a national championship, but that’s something we’ll deal with a little later.
Wesley’s amazing success over the last two decades is mostly the creation of two men – head coach Mike Drass and offensive coordinator Chip Knapp. They’ve held their jobs for 19 and 21 years, respectively, and considering their considerable success they certainly could have moved onto bigger and presumably better things by now.
Instead, they’ve elected to stay at a small school in a small town in a small state and do big things with it, along with a loyal staff that includes Steve Azzanesi (in his 10th year at Wesley), Shawn Plews (10th year) and Bob Healy (eighth year).
“We came to Wesley to establish something special here,’’ Drass said. “We made a commitment to the institution and to each other and to the kids we coach, and that’s why we’re still here.”
The numbers are pretty impressive. Drass and Knapp have never had a losing season and in the last six years they’ve averaged 11 victories a season. Some coaches go an entire career and never win 11 games in a season and these guys do it on a regular basis.
Drass has a different challenge than, say, Delaware coach K.C. Keeler, because he has to build his house with non-scholarship bricks. The fact that Drass and Co. have built one that’s so sturdy is because of their dedication and the reputation they’ve created. If a talented kid doesn’t get offers from big schools or if his grades aren’t quite good enough, his choice for a small school largely depends on the success it has and his impressions of the coaches who run it.
That’s why even though Wesley is in the middle of Delaware, only about 10 percent of the players on the Wolverines’ roster are from the First State. Players – sometimes very good ones – from other places seek them out. Most of them probably never heard of Dover before, but they’re aware of Wesley’s reputation.
But as good a reputations as Wesley has, it can’t match the one-two punch of the two teams that have dominated Division III for, well, forever. Ever year, either Mount Union is No. 1 in the nation and Wisconsin-Whitewater is No. 2, or, as in the case this season, vice-versa.
Keeler, who coached at Division III Rowan for nine years before taking over the Delaware program in 2002, knows that fact better than most. Keeler took Rowan to the Division III championship game five times and the semi-finals another two times and he never won the title.
“When you look at Mount Union and Wisconsin-Whitewater, you’re looking at the perfect storm,’’ Keeler said. “They have the three things you need to succeed and succeed consistently at that level. They have the facilities and they have the institutional support and they have the tradition and fan support. When you don’t have scholarships, those things are crucial.
“That’s something Mike and his staff at Wesley have to deal with and they’ve done a great job. When you win as many games as they do year in and year out, and get ranked as high as they are year in and year out, you’re doing a heck of a job recruiting and coaching. They’ve built a great program down there and everybody in Delaware should be proud of it.”