Inspired by Popp, Homestead seizes fifth state football title
Keel wins 250th game in rout of West
It was going to be "Hell or high water" but Homestead all-state football star Jack Popp was going to play in the WIAA Division 2 state title football game on Nov. 20 against Waukesha West, fractured arm or no fractured arm.
He had suffered the injury in the Level 3 victory over Brookfield East two weeks ago and missed the state semifinal victory over Chippewa Falls on Nov. 13.
But he simply had to close the door on his storied career, one that included a touchdown reception as a skinny freshman in Homestead's 14-0 state title win over Waunakee in 2012, the way he had opened it.
By leading Homestead to a fifth WIAA state title.
He got his clearance to play on Nov. 16 and then all his wishes came true on that overcast Nov. 20 afternoon.
Popp punted, played defensive back and served as a gigantic role model to the other Highlanders in their stunning, but thoroughly complete 28-12 dismantling of West this afternoon at Camp Randall.
So, as he and the rest of the Highlanders were happily gathering in the far corner of the end zone for the victor's team photos, he walked slowly amid the roar of the happy Homestead fans gathered on the chilly day in Madison, taking everything in.
He, like his teammates, who were given up by some two months ago as good but not great, decided to finish things with this most unlikely championship despite a less-than-promising start.
"When we were 2-2 (in September) we could have decided to pack it in, but instead we dialed it up and we decided to go all in and win a state championship," he said.
Because Popp is a company man, he understands the amount of work that goes into winning a title like this and how many others have done the same since the Highlanders won their first state crown in 1999.
It just didn't matter that the Highlanders had only four starters back on offense and just two on defense.
"I'm not surprised at all," he said. "We have an unreal tradition in this program. We have great players, great coaches and great teams. We love the competition."
Popp was clearly correct on all those assessments.
Great players included Tyler Woldt, who blocked a West punt on the first possession after the Wolverines had reached the Homestead 17 but were then backed up by an intentional grounding penalty.
"He's (Woldt) just a great athlete and we like to cut him loose in situations like that," said coach Dave Keel, who celebrated his 250th win with this championship. "We have complete trust in him."
Great athletes also include junior quarterback Eric Zoeller and senior back Patrick Minkin, who just a few plays after the block connected for a 33-yard TD pass on a fourth-and-22 situation.
Minkin slipped behind the West coverage in the end zone, caught the ball cleanly and withstood a couple of jarring hits for the score.
"It was just a great route and a great catch," said Zoeller.
Great players also included senior defensive back Sean Driscoll, who just a play after the TD catch, picked off a Connor Blunt pass and took it down to the West 10-yard line before narrowly being knocked out of bounds.
It was Blunt's first interception of the season.
Three plays later, Highlander senior running back Matt Winters, who pounded out a jarring 106 yards on 30 grueling carries, pushed it over from 3 yards out for a 14-0 lead with 3:46 still left in the first quarter.
It was all part of Keel's simple plan for success.
"Win the turnover battle and play great defense," he said.
The Highlanders continued in that vein just three plays later as sophomore defensive lineman Jordan Schroeder recovered a West fumble on the Homestead 40.
Eight plays later, Zoeller made a zone read, hit the right sideline and raced 34 yards for what was eventually the clinching TD at the 11:35 mark of the second quarter.
Zoeller said the great start was everything.
"We had so much respect for that team, that conference (the Classic 8)," he said. "It was so important. They were so good we knew we had to come out fast."
"This is such an astounding thing. A lot of people had counted us out, but they didn't know the amount of talent we had on this team. I knew we had a chance."
West made one good push in the third quarter as Peter MacCudden raced in from 20 yards out to make it 21-6 with 4:19 left in the third quarter.
But that was effectively their last gasp, because behind an almost completely rebuilt offensive line, the Highlanders sucked all the air out of Camp Randall and all the hope out of the Wolverines one excruciating first down after another.
The subsequent 79-yard drive included five consecutive third-down conversions and then two successful fourth downs including Winters' one-yard plunge for score with 3:22 left that made it 28-6.
In all, the drive was a preposterous 23-play affair that ate up 12:57 of the clock and left West virtually no time to rally.
Even the Highlanders' all-state tackle, Chris Malicky, who was also on the roster in 2012, was astounded by the effort.
"It was difficult, it was outstanding," he said. "It was hard staying focused for that long but we as a line kept pushing through right to the end."
"All credit to the O-line for that one," said Zoeller. "All credit."
"We spent a lot of energy on that drive," laughed Winters.
The Wolverines pushed through a consolation score in the final minutes, but it was a mere formality. Homestead offensive coordinator Drake Zortman then served as a decoy for the team as it hit Keel with the obligatory water cooler bath.
Then Zortman, who was brought over from Shorewood/Messmer this past year to become offensive coordinator, sat down on the bench away from the rest of the celebrating team, put his head on his knees for a few moments, wiped away a tear of happiness and got hugs from everyone he could.
As did his boss Keel, who recruited him to help his at first callow, but now thoroughly experienced players succeed.
"These kids are just fantastic, there's just no quit in them," Keel said. "We were down two scores to Chippewa Falls last week and we just kept battling and going and going."
"It just shows the commitment of the kids. Their ability to stay with it. They worked the plan and stayed with the plan."
Keel said he was nervous the whole game but his players were not.
Winters, who was one of the many veterans of the heartbreaking state semifinal loss to Menasha last season, gleefully handled many, many interview requests, stating in a forthright manner the main reason why the Highlanders were in this position.
"Oh my, the team chemistry was so great this year," he said. "It's why we're here. We set out to prove a point and I think we did."
And in the process, the Highlanders allowed one particular teammate to bring his career around full circle.
When asked how his arm is, Popp simply said:
"It feels great."
Much like the Highlanders were this day.
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