During their athletic careers at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Joe Hansen and Alex Merg endured some struggles, but also reached the pinnacle.
Hansen rode the bench for his first two seasons on the Whitewater football team, seeing only a bit of mop-up time on occasion, but in 2011, he earned a starting spot on the offensive line and was a contributor toward the Warhawks' NCAA Division III national championship.
Merg redshirted in his first year at Whitewater after undergoing hip surgery, but he came back and won a starting guard position on the 2011-12 national championship basketball squad.
Sharing their experiences
What's more, the two Greendale High School graduates were able to share all these experiences with each other, because they are longtime friends and roommates at Whitewater.
"This was just awesome," Merg said about he and Hansen both playing on national champion teams. "We grew up together, we're roommates and the fact that we both accomplished that in the same year is pretty phenomenal.
"This is so gratifying to me because I am on Joe's level now, and it is gratifying for Joe, because this was his first year as a full-time starter."
Hansen has been part of three national championship squads at Whitewater, but this was the first time for Merg.
"I was glad to see him experience it for himself," Hansen said. "This is different than my just telling him about (winning a title)."
Merg said the two of them respect each other's accomplishments, but after Whitewater won the basketball crown this spring, Hansen could not resist a slight jab at Merg.
"When we won," Merg said, "Joe said 'Oh, yes, I can remember back to my first championship.' "
Hansen and Merg have been friends since they were in sixth grade at Greendale Middle School. They played basketball together in sixth through eighth grades, taking part in a number of tournaments and leagues in the summer and during the basketball season.
In high school, Hansen concentrated on football and Merg on basketball. After graduating together in 2009, they both chose Whitewater.
Hansen was a reserve for two seasons, playing only in the fourth quarter of blowout games.
He trained particularly hard in the off-season after his sophomore year, working on his weight, strength and speed with Panthers head coach Rob Stoltz and his players.
Last summer, before his junior season, Hansen was made the starting right guard for Whitewater.
"I had worked so hard in my freshman and sophomore years and had played here and there in my first two seasons," Hansen said. "You know you've paid your dues."
He started the Warhawks' first game and played at guard for the first seven contests before Whitewater's starting center went down to injury. He then moved into the center spot and held it the rest of the season.
The Warhawks went on to win the NCAA Division III championship with a 15-0 mark, beating rival Mount Union, 13-10, in the title game at Salem, Va.
"We just have great coaches who know how to get it done," Hansen said. "We've had success and we want to keep building on it."
Missing out one year
While Hansen spent two years on the bench, Merg wasn't even able to be part of the basketball team as a freshman. He underwent hip surgery in the summer of 2009 after his senior year at Greendale.
"I had dealt with the problem the last two years of high school," explained Merg, who made the Greendale varsity as a freshman and became a starter as a sophomore. "I missed half of my junior year and was limited in my senior year. I knew the surgery was coming."
He missed what would have been his freshman season at Whitewater. He said it was about 15 months until he was completely recovered, but is experiencing no further problems now.
Merg received limited playing time the next year but won a starting job this past season.
He was finally rewarded for his patience and perseverance by being part of the 2011-12 national championship team. The Warhawks finished 29-4 and beat Cabrini College, 63-60, in the title contest, rallying from an 18-point deficit with 10 minutes left.
"We started playing more aggressively and took advantage of the free throw line," Merg said. "We locked down on defense and held them to just four field goals in the final 15 minutes."
Merg is still in awe of the comeback.
"Going in, we knew we were the better team," he said. "When we were down, though, we had some guys panicking at halftime. Considering that, coming back like we did in the national championship game is absolutely incredible. Also, my family and friends were there to see it."
Crowned in the same place
In a nice bit of symmetry, the basketball title game was also played in Salem, Va., just a short distance away from the field where Hansen and the Warhawks had claimed their football crown.
Hansen and Merg were able to follow each other's accomplishments throughout the year.
"We try to go to each other's games as often as possible," Hansen said. "I like to make it to at least Alex's home games."
Both Hansen and Merg are already looking ahead to the 2012-13 seasons.
"We definitely can win another championship," Hansen said. "We have a good corps of offensive linemen back, with three starters, and the guys who have to fill in the other spots saw a decent amount of time this past season."
Merg added, "I am just about done reflecting on (the past) season and am now getting back into gear for next season."
Still, though, there is time to reflect on what happened in 2011-12.
"It is really special for us to have grown up together and to both have made a huge imprint on two of the best programs at Whitewater," Merg said.
WE ARE CHAMPIONS
Greendale graduates Joe Hansen and Alex Merg both played on national championship teams at UW-Whitewater.
HANSEN: As starting right guard and center, he helped the Warhawks rack up 3,579 yards rushing and 2,989 yards passing, plus 450 points … he is majoring in history education, looking to teach history in middle or high school.
MERG: As starting point guard, he averaged 6.1 points, a team-high 4.2 assists and 2.6 rebounds, also making 41 steals, second on the team … he is majoring in accounting and finance, with a minor in information technology.