Waunakee, Homestead are both football programs with tradition on their side
The two teams have eight state titles between them
Mequon - When asked why he was not surprised by the lopsided outcome of North Shore rival Homestead's 49-8 WIAA State Division 2 semifinal rout of Marshfield at UW-Oshkosh on Saturday, Whitefish Bay football coach Jim Tietjen had a simple answer.
"One of the things that the Homestead staff has is playoff experience, a lot of it," Tietjen said. "They just know what's going on. And if they're playing another team that has a staff without that much experience at this level, well, it can get bigger than life for those folks pretty quick."
The 11-1 Highlanders made it bigger than life for Marshfield and they'll try to do the same to a 12-0 Waunakee team that comes into Friday's 1 p.m. state finals at Camp Randall with a 48-game winning streak and the last three state D2 crowns under their belts.
And because of the daunting nature of the task ahead of them, coach Dave Keel had one simple, but imposing request of his team on Saturday when they met in their post-game huddle after a 42-point first half effort that had even Keel shaking his head in admiration.
"You really stepped it up today," he said, "and you played your second-best game of the year, because next week (meaning this Friday's championship) you'll have to improve on this. What happened today will have to become our second-best game if we step up and get that gold (state championship) ball."
A community destination
A tall task indeed, because he will face a football culture and program that is being called the best in the state at this moment. Not only has Waunakee won the last three titles in a row, but this will be their eighth trip to the finals and they will be seeking their sixth state crown overall (the last three to go along with championships won in 1999 and 2002).
No wonder, high school football is the destination for many residents of this Madison suburb on fall Friday nights.
"We've always tried to make it a special deal for the community," longtime coach Pat Rice said. "We always seem to have a lot of alumni back at games and we try to play as well as we can for those who come out (to watch).
"We have a lot of people very interested in football and all the athletic programs we offer here so it's very important that we put our best foot forward. It's a neat atmosphere to be a part of."
And coinciding with that best foot forward, is the winning streak, which Rice and his staff and team do their best not to think about.
"Every team we have has been tested," Rice added. "This year's team may not have the margin of error that everyone thinks we have. Games like we just came out of (the 35-28 overtime thriller over Whitefish Bay) just builds character. The kids come out of the other end of games like that and they feel OK.
"… And we don't talk about it (the streak) at all. It's the last thing on our minds. We just want to win that next game on Friday. We just look at the game in front of us, win that one, win the next snap.
"Are we proud of it? Yes, of course, but each group wants to write its own chapter. No, there's no countdown board or anything like that. We can't afford to get caught in things like that because we know there are teams out there fully capable of beating us."
Homestead not far behind
The culture that Keel has built at Homestead ranks only a little bit behind that of Waunakee's. This is the Highlanders' fifth trip to the finals. It's their first since 2008 and its first in Division 2. They will be looking for their fourth overall title. As indicated, his coaching staff is battled-tested, led by defensive coordinator Fritz Rauch, defensive line coach Tom Fugate and offensive line/special teams coach Matt Wolf.
"It's been an interesting run," Keel said of Division 2, "because we just don't have a lot of feel for these teams. Playing in D1 all those years, we had some feel for the teams we would wind up seeing (on a repeated basis) and it does save you some work, but these teams (in D2), we just haven't faced before."
Along those lines, Keel broached the idea of possibly giving teams that feel they're strong enough the chance to opt up a class in the playoffs. The WIAA gives basketball teams that opportunity and he noted that the Nicolet girls basketball team won a state D1 title a couple of years ago doing just that.
"But until that change comes, we'll play the hand that we're dealt," he said.
In Rice's opinion, he wouldn't mind having Homestead move up, having seen some film of the surging Highlanders.
"Excellent coaches doing an excellent job," Rice said of Homestead. "We've been admiring them from a distance for a few years now and always admired how professional they've been. We haven't competed against them either, but they have tremendous players."
"This is going to be a tough matchup. We haven't had a lot of film until this weekend but their defense just flies to the ball and they do a terrific job of putting people in the right positions."
And that comes from great coaching, of which both sides seem to have plenty.
WHAT: Division 2 State Football Championship game
WHEN: 1 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Camp Randall, Madison
WHO: Homestead (11-1) vs. Waunakee (12-0)
WAUNAKEE SUMMARY: The Warriors offense is explosive to say the least. The 35 points they put on Bay (10-2) was the most anyone scored by far against the Blue Dukes this season and they amassed 76 points against Baraboo in a Badger North Conference game earlier this season. Running back Tyler Reynolds has rushed for 1,431 yards this season and 22 TDs while quarterback Will Decorah (1,833 yards with 11 TDs) has three effective receivers to go to, all with 20 or more catches. The defense is stout up front but can be penetrated. Watertown scored 27 points in the level 3 game and Bay's 28 was the most the Warriors have given up since the opening win over Monona Grove.
HOMESTEAD SUMMARY: Ever since the 14-7 loss to Bay in the second-to-last game of the regular season, the Highlanders have been on a roll. Whether winning big or small, they have found a knack for the necessary play. Quarterback Jake Laihinen has made several plays in recent games as receivers Darius Cross, Jack Popp and Jay Schneider have all come up huge. Schneider is also a back who runs in concert with hard-charging teammates Shaquille Cole and Jabree Washington. Cole and Washington have channeled the spirit of their cousin, NOW 1999 All-Suburban Player of the Year and leader of Homestead's first state championship team Demetrius Johnson, and the defense, as Rice noted, has been all over the field. Defensive back Riley Pelisek (36 on the ACT test) is both its cerebral and physical leader.
KEEL'S ASSESSMENT:"I think one of the things that we really like about this group, is that they've really taken to heart our idea of improving every day. In practice, in film study, in the classroom, they've just done it all. It's been a pleasure to be connected to such fine young men who are committed to success."
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