Milwaukee Riverside football coach Patrick Wagner has heard all the stories about his team.
"Nice record, but who have you played?" goes one line and another is "Why doesn't the City Conference do better in the state playoffs?"
But Wagner and his Tigers went a long way towards answering a lot of those questions Friday night, when they went toe-to-toe with one of the state's empire-builders in football, Homestead, and beat the North Shore Conference champion, 29-22, in a statement-making WIAA Division 1, Level 2 playoff game.
Afterwards, which side had the better team was only the tip of the iceberg in Wagner's eyes.
"Honestly, I have to prove something every day," he said. "because we hear that stuff every day, about the test scores, about the kids, about what they've done on the field. No one sees the good side of the city (and its schools), about how many good kids there are, how many graduate. When you see what a lot of these kids have to overcome, it's all amazing."
With the win, the Tigers (10-1) advance to a WIAA Level 3 game against Sussex Hamilton (10-1), which ousted the bracket's top seed Manitowoc, 27-24.
It was the biggest state playoff win by a City Conference school since Riverside beat Marquette, 24-22, in 2006 to advance to the state semifinals where the Tigers lost a 24-20 thriller to eventual runner-up Arrowhead.
Arrowhead was beaten for that division 1 state title game by Homestead.
Homestead finished at 8-3 this season, its most losses since 2000. It was the third straight year that the Highlanders have been ousted in the second round of the playoffs.
"Both teams played hard and played well tonight," said Homestead coach Dave Keel. "They have some very nice players on that team and in the end, they just made a couple of more plays than we did."
The first turning point came late in the first half. Both teams had marched up and down the field on their first two possessions for touchdowns and a 14-all tie, but on the Highlanders' third try, they faced a fourth and three from the Riverside 20 with a chance to take their third lead of the game.
Keel went deep into his bag of tricks for a little sleight-of-hand, going for an end-around with receiver Jake Laihinen, but Riverside defensive back Eric Murry had none of that, stopping Laihinen two yards short of the first down.
The Tigers, with just 2:35 left on the clock, then swiftly went 81 yards down the field, scoring with just 12 seconds left in the half on a six-yard pass from Shamari Triggs to Jalen Gillie. A 21-yard Triggs to Murry pass set the Tigers up with a first and goal at the six.
It was 21-14 at the half, and Riverside would never surrender the lead again.
"That was a huge sequence of plays," said Keel. "I think I got a little too smart for my own good (on that fourth down play). We turn it over on downs, and then they turn around and score."
Homestead did not stop the Tigers at all on any of their three possessions in the first half, but things did get better defensively for the Highlanders in the second half. They got the initial stop in the third quarter, but the Tigers defense answered on the following sequence, also forcing a Homestead punt.
That's when the Tigers' relentless and deep speed-based offense came to the fore again, as Triggs hit Murry with another deep out for 23 yards and then fullback Larry Watkins burst free for 36 yards on a nice cutback.
Two plays later, Triggs brought the ball down on a dropback and raced in 10 yards for the clinching TD with 2:44 left in the third quarter. To make matters worse for Homestead, the snap was bad on the extra point, and Bakari Triggs simply took off around left side for the improvised two-point conversion and a 29-14 lead.
Watkins would finish with 103 yards on nine carries to lead all rushers.
Homestead's defense would rise to the occasion and the Highlanders a chance, holding Riverside to just one first down on its final four sequences, but the Highlanders could not press the advantage.
Two sequences later, Homestead got to the Tigers' 14, but a motion penalty and an incomplete pass on fourth down in the end zone ended the threat.
But an ill-advised fake punt on fourth down deep in his own territory by Bakari Triggs came up a foot short of the first down, and Homestead took over at the Riverside 29 with just 7:39 remaining but still with an opportunity.
Eight plays later, quarterback Cody Berger hit Laihinen with a tough seven-yard fourth-down pass for the TD with 4:26 left. Homestead closed the gap to seven when Berger hit Jabree Washington with the two-point conversion pass.
Homestead hopes were raised even further when the defense forced a three and out which gave the ball back to the Highlanders with just 2:38 remaining.
But on a first-down pass attempt by Berger across the middle of the field, the ball was tipped and intercepted by Riverside's Nicholas Mike, who had incurred a costly pass interference penalty on Homestead's final scoring drive.
"That was a huge play," said Wagner of the pick. "That more than made up for the penalty. In fact, I tell the kids, I'd rather take a 15-yard penalty (for interference) than six points (a touchdown) anyday. We made them work a little harder to get that touchdown and that took a little more time off the clock."
Homestead coaches saw the interception much differently, as they argued vehemently that their receiver was held on the play long before the pass got to him. They were still arguing that call two plays later, when Shamari Triggs went around end for nine yards and the game-clinching first down.
It was Riverside's only first down of the fourth quarter.
"We had a bit of a shaky fourth," said Wagner, "but the kids never gave up. It was good that we faced a little adversity, got tested tonight. That was a heck of a team we faced."
The Highlanders spent a long time on the field afterward and Keel gave senior running back Antoine Easterling (17 carries for 70 yards) a final say to the squad, during which he said in a dignified manner.
"You are my brothers, you are my team."
After which, the Highlanders slowly dirifted off the field, walking between a corridor of appreciative applauding fans to their bus for the long ride home.
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