OSHKOSH — Nick Amato admits he was a little disappointed when he was moved to the special teams unit when UW-Oshkosh opened the 2016 season.
But now, with the Titans vying for the first Division III national championship in program history, the Waunakee native is more than happy with his role.
“At the beginning of the year, it was a little bit demoralizing knowing that, as a senior, you weren’t going to get as many snaps as you’d like,” Amato said.
“But really, I don’t care about getting all the snaps. I get my tackles on special teams. I feel like I need to be a leader on special teams and it feels good.’’
Amato and the Titans (13-1) earned a trip to face Mary Hardin-Baylor (14-0) in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl Friday in Salem, Virginia, with a 10-3 home victory over John Carroll (Ohio) last Saturday. Oshkosh’s defense led the way in the semifinal, holding the Blue Streaks to 264 yards and 3.8 yards per play.
Amato had a pair of tackles in that game, giving him 42 for the season. He has three tackles for loss, a half-sack and forced two fumbles in 14 games.
“He’s a great kid,” Oshkosh coach Pat Cerroni said. “It’s just nice to have him stick it out and be a part of this, because he’s a major part of what we do.
“It takes a selfless person to commit to something like that.”
With perennial Stagg Bowl participant and Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference rival UW-Whitewater ousted in a quarterfinal loss to John Carroll, some saw Oshkosh as an upstart, an underdog of sorts. No one in the Titans’ program agrees with the observation — though they are willing to embrace the underdog role if it helps their cause.
“We’re just kind of laying in the weeds,” Cerroni said. “Focused on the prize.”
Cerroni, who is in his 10th season as coach of the Titans, joined the program as defensive coordinator under his predecessor, Phil Meyer, who in turn, took over for longtime coach Ron Cardo. By the end of the 1990s, Oshkosh had become a perennial bottom-feeder in the WIAC and Meyer was brought on board in 2000 to start a turnaround.
Meyer left after the 2006 season for a job at the University of Minnesota, and Cerroni was promoted. Six seasons later, the Titans went undefeated in league play to win their first WIAC title since 1976 and advanced all the way to the Division III semifinals before a loss to St. Thomas (Minn.).
Oshkosh took the WIAC title again in 2015, going 7-0 and knocking off top-ranked Whitewater along the way, but the Titans’ season ended in the Division III quarterfinals when the Warhawks won the rematch.
So when the Titans gathered to open training camp this year, the goal was simple: It was time to take the next step, for themselves and for the program.
“These guys have had a goal all year long,” Cerroni said. “They’re pretty focused on that goal right now.”
The road to Salem wasn’t easy. In the regular season, Oshkosh faced seven teams that qualified for the playoffs this season and beat all of them except Whitewater, which rallied late in the fourth quarter for a 17-14 victory on Oct. 8 in Whitewater.
That loss, though, served as a blessing in disguise. The Titans didn’t lose another game after that, rattling off nine straight victories while outscoring their opponents 299-126 along the way.
“(The loss to Whitewater) gave us a little more fire,” Amato said. “Yeah, we didn’t have a good shot at winning conference anymore, but that wasn’t where we wanted to end up at the end of the season anyway.
“Now, we’re where we want to be.”
Oshkosh will be tested on Friday night by Mary Hardin-Baylor of Belton, Texas. The Crusaders (14-0) come into the game with the nation’s second-best scoring offense, averaging 49.4 points per game.
Mary Hardin-Baylor — which beat defending Division III champion Mount Union (Ohio) 14-12 in last week’s semifinals — has held opponents to 76.6 yards per game.
“Mary Hardin-Baylor is a really good football team, but you just have to look at the work we’ve done here,” Cerroni said. “They have to be saying ‘Wow, these guys must be pretty good, too.’
“Everybody talks about how awesome their team is, and I just say ‘That’s great.’ It’s going to take a heck of a lot, but I think we have one more in us.”