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Stingy defense gives Homestead football team its fourth state title

Homestead players celebrate a Division 2 title by soaking head coach Dave Keel.

Homestead players celebrate a Division 2 title by soaking head coach Dave Keel. Photo By Mark Hoffman

Nov. 16, 2012

It takes heart and a bit more to break a state record 48-game winning streak, to turn back an empire that has won three state championships in a row, to shut out an offensive juggernaut that once scored 76 points on a team this year and which has not been shutout in something close to seven seasons.

The Homestead football squad had those qualities and did all of those things Friday afternoon in the WIAA State D2 championship game, defeating previously Waunakee by a 14-0 score. The title was the fourth for Homestead (12-1) since 1999 (1999, 2006, and 2008), and its first in division 2.

"It's a great day to be a Highlander," shouted defensive coordinator Fritz Rauch to anyone who listen in the late-afternoon sun at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison

And he wouldn't get any arguments from anyone wearing red and white fan gear this afternoon. His unit was on the field much of the second half but still found the will and the way to turn back the powerful Warriors (12-1) three times inside the five-yard line in the second half.

Arguably the most incredible effort was the first one on fourth and a foot situation early in the third quarter, where the interior of the Highlander line caved in the Warriors' offensive front to such an extent that quarterback Will Decorah was essentially tripped by one of his own men and his hand-off to back Tyler Reynolds was ruined resulting in a two-yard loss.

Other subsequent score-stopping efforts included defensive back Max Pavelec and senior defensive end Ryan Stendler dragging down receiver Jacob Mehlhoff at the three-yard line on a fourth and goal pass from the 12 with about two minutes to go in the third

And with about eight minutes to go, a final Waunakee fourth down threat from the four-yard line was slowed by two incomplete passes before the Highlanders benefitted from some good fortune, when a wide open Warriors' receiver fell down at the goal line and a Decorah pass sailed over his head.

"To get those stops, three of them inside the 10-yard line is just unbelievable," said Rauch. "This unit played as well as any team we've put in this situation before."

"These kids put their hearts and souls into it. Everything they put into it from day one on, went into that second half."

It's all a matter of good character, said senior running back Jay Schneider.

"Heart" is what Schneider felt was the defining motive of this team this fall. it was unit which was viewed as a good Homestead squad going into the season but maybe not a great one.

"We give it our all every play and go as hard as we can every play, every second we're out there," Schneider said.

Schneider's point was proved when with 28 seconds left in the first half, and the Highlanders sitting 75 yards away from the end zone, he ripped off a 53-yard run down to the Warriors' 22-yard line.

What had been looked as a throwaway moment, a moment just to take a knee and go into the lockerroom with a 7-0 lead, became some serious momentum for Homestead a play later when senior quarterback Jake Laihinen found freshmen end Jack Popp on a deep out pattern.

Popp made a leaping grab over a Waunakee defender who was practically tucked inside his jersey, spun away from him and went in for a touchdown with just 11 seconds left in the half.

The score not only proved to be all but clinching but it also made up for two previous trips to the red zone by the Highlander offense that had resulted in a missed field goal and an interception.

"We were just trying to run a safe play, something maybe we can break," said Highlander coach Dave Keel of Schneider's run. "It was well-blocked  and then Jay hit the seam and as we all know, he can break it almost anytime he wants and he almost did there."

"...We didn't get into the end zone on those previous two trips and we were feeling that we should have more points than just seven, so to get that touchdown at that particular moment was just special."

"We had all the momentum in the world after that point," said Schneider. "...It was all part of a journey for us, from day one, right to this moment. No one knew who was going to win the state title, so why not us?"

The Highlanders had taken the initial lead when, for the second game in a row they scored on the first possession of the game going 81 yards in eight plays. Senior running back Shaquille Cole set up the score with a 41-yard burst through the middle and then senior quarterback Jake Laihinen hit end Brett Geschke at the goal line for 13 yards and a first down.

Laihinen then powered his way in from a yard out at the 7:57 mark for a lead Homestead would not give up.

"Our main focus was to start out strong," Laihinen said. "The first dive sets up momentum for the rest of the game and that was the perfect drive. The line blocked perfectly, the backs ran perfectly."

"It was all just perfectly set up."

Not quite perfectly, as it also takes soul and grit to get a job like this done. Schneider knows a bit about that, after having endured several knee surgeries earlier in his life, and Stendler, who was all over the field this day making play after play, did to, having had to work with a bad back.

And so did Cole, who suffered an ankle injury two weeks ago in the level III thriller over Green Bay Southwest and who re-aggravated it in the semifinal win over Marshfield contest and again in this game.

Each time he came back to run even harder.

"It's been hard to put weight on it or try to turn," he said, "but I had to keep on working hard. I needed to stay strong for my team."

His cousin Demetrius Johnson, star of the first Homestead state championship team of 1999, would probably understand that sentiment fully as Cole, after getting treatment, ran for two hard-won, time-killing first downs after the defense's last fourth quarter goal-line stop.

He finished with 83 yards on 17 carries.

"It was all just a blur in that second half," said senior defensive back Riley Pelisek, who along with Stendler both had momentun stopping interceptions. "We just played hard as a team"

Then he excused himself to join his teammates in celebration.

One that was in the making from day one in early August.

"I mean, it really was just like that," said Stendler. "We just focused on game at a time, one snap at a time and we just tried to keep it going until we got here."

"Man is this a great feeling."

One his position coach understand, knowing how much effort went into it.

"It's a pretty special day when you beat a program like Waunakee," said Rauch, "but they were a team going for history, but they found out that Homestead could play a little football too."

And to emphasize that point, he turned around, pointed to some fans in the stands, and yelled "How about them Highlanders?"

How about them indeed?

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