Posted September 18, 2017
With no winning football seasons in the past 16 years, UW-River Falls coaches decided it was time to take a gamble – and start recruiting in Las Vegas.
This year’s UWRF football team includes nine players from the Las Vegas area and two more from Arizona among its 46 freshmen and 120-man roster overall. Coupled with renewed emphasis on recruiting the best high school players from western Wisconsin, this is “the most talented group I’ve ever had,” seventh-year head coach Matt Walker said.
“One of the problems when I first got here was we didn’t have the best players from around here,” Walker said, remembering that his roster totaled just 47 players in 2011. “Now we’ve done a great job of winning recruits in our backyard. That was our No. 1 goal in the rebuilding process, and you can’t question that commitment on our roster.”
The Falcons have improved recruiting from Wisconsin cities such as La Crosse, Eau Claire and Madison, but competition for those players has increased, with more of them getting scholarships from Division I and Division II universities, whereas UWRF and other Division III campuses cannot offer athletic scholarships.
This has forced many Wisconsin football programs to find pockets of players outside the state. Most have looked toward Chicago for players, but Walker and his coaching staff decided to go in an entirely new direction this past offseason.
“We decided to go the other way out West into pockets that made sense for us,” Walker said. “We had never done it before but showed that we are an option for kids where there aren’t Division III programs.”
The advantages of having a new $63.5 million Falcon Center sports facility and a hub airport within driving distance of UWRF allowed coaches to recruit in areas where options are limited for Division III athletics. Almost every member of the football staff took trips to Arizona and Las Vegas, meeting with high school coaches and accepting invitations to speak with players.
Freshman Justice Watson was one of the players who came from Las Vegas to join the Falcons. Watson graduated from Bishop Gorman High School, the No. 1-ranked high school football team in the country. Watson had heard about UWRF from one of the other players from Las Vegas who had signed on to join the Falcons.
“I messaged Coach (Rocky) Larson and told him I was interested and sent them some of my tape,” Watson said. “They started recruiting, and Coach Walker and almost the whole staff came to talk to me and my family, which got me interested.”
Watson visited the campus during the postseason runs for the men’s basketball team and women’s hockey team last winter. He had a great experience and quickly fell in love with the campus, he said.
“Las Vegas is a metro area in the desert, and River Falls is a small city that’s all green, so it’s about as different as could be,” he recalled. “It really caught my eye how nice people are here and that they will help you out with anything you need.”
When Watson arrived for fall practice, he ran into two other Vegas players he had lost touch with for years. Dominique Turner, another freshman, had played against Watson in the state championship game the previous fall.
Coming with other Vegas players “definitely helped make the transition easier,” Watson said. “They welcomed us like we’ve always been here. I’m already a part of the family, which helped a lot.”
Fernando Ortega, a freshman defensive lineman from Mesa, Arizona, began to meet with the coaching staff back in January. Ortega was quickly impressed by the UWRF coaches’ pitch.
“They described River Falls as a great school and a personal fit,” Ortega said. “It was a cool feeling to know my high school film made it all the way to Wisconsin.”
Ortega took a formal visit to River Falls only a few weeks later and quickly became interested in becoming a Falcon.
“Coach Walker always talks about fitting in with the family,” Ortega said. “At first it was tough, because the style of play is much more ground and pound compared to the fast passing pace in Arizona and Las Vegas. But we easily overcame that hurdle to be a family.”
While there are a few junior colleges and NAIA schools in the Arizona and Las Vegas area, the lack of Division II or Division III presence helped Ortega decide to further his education and football career with the Falcons.
“It’s a lot of the little things that sold it,” he said. “I wouldn’t come here if there wasn’t any potential. We see what’s building up here, and hopefully by my junior and senior year, you can see what’s in store.”
He and his Vegas teammates are betting on a few winning seasons ahead.