Homestead's fourth state title earned through character, heart and talent
Defense makes three epic stops
Mequon - 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 Division 2 championship game, defeating previously unbeaten Waunakee, 14-0. 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 would listen in the late afternoon sun at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison
And his head coach and working partner for 17 years Dave Keel didn't argue with him as Rauch's defensive 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.
"We have kids who are not afraid to face issues," Keel said. "Who do what is needed to be successful."
Rauch's quarterback of the defense, senior safety Riley Pelisek, agreed.
"I think we have a never-give-up kind of quality," Pelisek said. "That was critical to our success out there this day. No one turned on each other over a bad play. We just lined up and went at it again.
"I clearly think we played our best game of the year (on defense)."
Critical goal-line stand
Arguably the most incredible effort was the first one on fourth and a foot early in the third quarter, where the interior of the Highlanders line, particularly sophomore tackle David Pfaff, caved in the Warriors' offensive front and forced one of their lineman into quarterback Will Decorah. Decorah then tripped and his handoff to back Tyler Reynolds was ruined resulting in a two-yard loss.
"That was just ridiculous," Pelisek said. "Right there on the goal-line, we made that stop."
Other subsequent score-stymieing efforts included senior 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," Rauch said. "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."
Players gave everything they had
It's all a matter of good character, senior running back Jay Schneider said.
"Heart" is what Schneider said was the defining motive of this team this fall. It was a unit that 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 at as a throwaway moment, a moment just to take a knee and go into the lockers 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 Highlanders 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," Keel said 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," Schneider said. "... 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?"
Offense scores early
Homestead 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 drive 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 making play after play, did too, having had to work with a bad back.
And so did Cole, who suffered an ankle injury two weeks ago in the Level 3 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 Pelisek, who along with Stendler both had momentum-stopping interceptions. "We just played hard as a team"
Then he excused himself to join his teammates in celebration.
Focus began in August
One that was in the making from day one in early August.
"I mean, it really was just like that," Stendler said. "We just focused one 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 understands, knowing how much effort went into it.
"It's a pretty special day when you beat a program like Waunakee," Rauch said, "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?"
At a glance
A closer look at the championship game:
With the title, the Highlanders move another rung up the state championship ladder. Stafford leads the way with seven titles, while Edgar and Lancaster have six each. D.C. Everest, Menomonie, Monroe, Osseo-Fairchild, Waunakee and Arrowhead (which won the Division 1 title Friday) all have five and Ashwaubenon, Brillion, Darlington and Homestead have all claimed four.
One unusual statistical anomaly in the game was that Homestead won despite converting just one of 11 third-down situations while the Warriors made seven of 19.
And if one looks at the schedule for 2013, it will find an Arrowhead at Homestead non-conference matchup listed for the second game of the campaign. The two powerhouses have not met since their epic run of three WIAA State D1 championship matchups in a row from 2006-2008. Homestead won two of those games.
"We've been trying to work something out like that for years, and it finally worked out on both of our schedules," coach Dave Keel said. "We have a two-year, home-and-home contract and I think it'll be fun for everyone to see the D1 and D2 state champs go after it."
Once a Highlander, always a Highlander: Among the myriad congratulatory texts (38 all told just after the game) and emails that Keel received included many football alumni including greats like Darnell Smith and Demetrius Johnson, and former defensive coordinator Matt Oswald. Even old Everest coach Wayne Steffenhagen chimed in with a gracious note.
The Homestead football team continued its happy state finals tradition of invading (and almost emptying) the Old Country Buffet in Madison following the championship game. Keel said the boys were on their best behavior the entire evening and everyone had a good time.
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