Mequon - Homestead football coach Dave Keel spent a fair amount of his time this past holiday weekend, chasing around an exuberant 6-year-old relative who was visiting with his family from down south.
The joyful pastime of course reminded him of his day job, and how much fun he is still having 30-plus years on that particular career track.
"My goodness, he was fast," Keel said with a laugh. "I would love to have a chance to coach him in a few years."
And there is no hint anywhere that after this last remarkable WIAA state championship season, his and the team's fourth since 1999, that he wouldn't be around to do so if given the chance.
"Hey, I'm just thinking about getting ready for 2013," he said.
Plus sharing some fond memories of 2012, a season in which the Highlanders shook off three years of WIAA playoff ennui, faltering in the second round in all three campaigns and finally looking like years of enrollment decline were finally starting to catch up with the North Shore's gridiron kings.
Despite the frustration, Keel didn't think the program was in decline at all.
"Every year is different," he said. "The kids who are seniors (in any given year) don't see a trend and especially the seniors we had this year. They didn't play three years ago (in the playoff loss to Menomonee Falls) and many didn't play two years ago (in the defeat at the hands of Germantown).
"People like you and I, who are around all the time, can see a trend, but the kids who are playing this year are only looking to get as far as they can (in the playoffs)."
And he ticked off several examples.
Seniors lead the way
There were the NOW All-Suburban stars such as offensive tackle Luke Worthington and defensive end Ryan Stendler, but Keel also wanted to talk about the likes of senior running back Shaquille Cole, who injured his ankle in the third round Green Bay Southwest game and kept coming back for more in the semifinal with Marshfield and in the epic title game win over Waunakee.
"Shaquille told me early on (in the season), that he didn't care how many carries I get or how much he played, he just wanted a chance to play in Madison (in the state finals)," Keel said. "I can't say enough about hard that young man worked."
Running back Jay Schneider's 81-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half in the regular season closer with Germantown was seen as another critical turning point this season. The effort broke a scoreless tie and from there, the Highlanders never looked back.
With it, they had thrown off the disappointment of the previous week's epic 14-7 loss to fellow North Shore co-champ Whitefish Bay and then just started rolling downhill all the way to Madison.
"We had a short week to put it behind us and we did," Keel said of the Bay game.
Unsung heroes abound
And there were other seniors who flew under the public radar, but who were just integral to the Highlanders' success, such as converted center turned tight end Ben Binversie ("a real unsung hero," Keel said) and offensive lineman Pat Rosenberg ("He did a very nice job."). Defensive back Riley Pelisek and linebacker David Anderson also came in for their leadership and intensity.
And then there was sophomore nose tackle David Pfaff, who made one of the great pivotal defensive plays in school history, when he got a great jump on Waunakee's all-state center on a fourth-and-goal situation from inside the one-yard line when the state title game was still in doubt on Nov. 16.
"He drove (the center) back into the quarterback's foot, making him trip and ruining the whole play," Keel said. "That was just a special play by a special kid that really set the tone."
Homestead would go on to make two more goal-line stops later in the game. A historic feat that even the players knew was special.
"It was just relentless down there on the goal-line," Stendler said, "but we had to keep clawing back. We made our stands and we got the turnovers. … We were seniors, we weren't going to leave anything behind. When one guy made a play another guy wanted to make a play, too."
Worthington was aware of that fact. He had opportunities to take his considerable size (6-8, 265 pounds) to a football school and make hay before large crowds on sunny afternoons, but basketball is his calling. He had 34 schools interested in him before agreeing on an NCAA Division I scholarship from Brigham Young University.
"I love the contact, I love the intensity (of football)," he said, "but basketball is my passion … so to do this (win a state title) in my last game in pads is especially meaningful. Just ideal. Only seven teams each year get to end their seasons with an especially important win like this.
"It's the best feeling you can have. It's great to see the trophy with the (three) others in the case (at school) to know that we'll be on the banner in the field house, too. There are just so many great things that go along with this."
Such as the football banquet on Dec. 17 that will be followed by a ring ceremony for the state title.
Reloading for next year
And, as noted, Keel, who is also still coaching girls softball in the spring, will get ready for next year. Quarterback Jake Laihinen, and running backs Jabree Washington, Cole and Schneider will all graduate in June, leaving the offense to make a fresh start, but three sophomore offensive lineman return as do freshmen end Jack Popp (who had a huge touchdown catch against Waunakee), Pfaff and others.
The junior varsity was 6-2 and the freshmen went 8-0, but Keel will still worry about Bay, which made state semifinals and whose junior varsity won the league title.
But he and his players will still think long and often about the great deeds just accomplished.
"This feeling is great," Stendler said. "To put our names and our reputations out there with the other champions is just amazing. People remember teams like that."
For good reason.
AT A GLANCE
HOMESTEAD FOOTBALL HISTORY (of making the WIAA state semifinals or better):
1995 - state semifinals (lost to Kenosha Tremper)
1999 - state champion (beat Marshfield in finals)
2001 - state semifinals (lost to Marshfield)
2002 - state semifinals (lost to Marshfield)
2003 - state semifinals (lost to D.C. Everest)
2005 - state semifinals (lost to Racine Park)
2006 - state champion (beat Arrowhead in finals)
2007 - state runner-up (lost to Arrowhead in finals)
2008 - state champion (beat Arrowhead in finals)
2012 - state champions (beat Waunakee in finals)
SENIORS: Jabree Washington, David Anderson, Shaquille Cole, Max Pavelec, Ryan Stendler, Darius Cross, Brett Geschke, Jake Laihinen, Wes Wouters, Riley Pelisek, Tyler Gehrke, Jay Schneider, Peter Sileno, Colten Poellinger, Andrew Zhu, Mike Blaser, Josh Moore, Mike DeGuire, Joey Mullins, Henri Shein, Pat Rosenberg, Yuri Pogosyan, Luke Worthington, Ben Gaddour, Alex Bristol, Ben Binversie and Tyler Johnson.
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