As far as regular-season games go, they don’t get much bigger.
The Waunakee football team entered the final week of the regular season as the top-ranked team in Division 2; DeForest was ranked fourth. The two unbeaten teams clashed at DMB Stadium in DeForest Friday night with the Badger North Conference title on the line.
Despite both the Warriors and Norskies featuring high-powered offenses – each team entered the night averaging over 46 points per game – it was defense that defined the game early. In the first quarter alone, Waunakee’s defense forced three punts and an interception from Isaac Schaaf in the end zone, while the Norskies countered with two forced punts and an interception of their own.
It took until late in the second quarter for the offenses to come alive. Waunakee struck first; after converting a fourth and one on a long run by Caden Nelson, the Warriors found themselves in first and goal. From five yards out, Nelson connected with a leaping Andrew Keller in the back of the end zone to put the first points on the board. A failed extra point, however, kept Waunakee’s lead at 6-0 with 3:05 to go until halftime.
The Norskies’ offense responded on the ensuing possession; DeForest marched 82 yards to find the end zone on a touchdown pass of their own with 7.6 seconds remaining in the half. A crucial made extra point put the Norskies ahead by a point heading into halftime.
DeForest took control of the game with their first two possessions of the second half. Their first was capped with a 36-yard scoring run by Gabe Finley, while the second saw the Norskies convert three third downs en route to finding the end zone again, extending their lead to 21-6.
Needing a spark, Waunakee quickly got one from their special teams unit. Joe Hauser scooped up a squib kick, broke a couple of tackles and went on to outrace DeForest’s coverage team for a 77-yard score, giving the Warriors an immediate response to the two-score deficit. After Aidan Driscoll’s extra point, Waunakee trailed by just eight points with 3:39 remaining in the third quarter.
With the Norskies again marching, the Warriors started the fourth quarter in their own territory. Needing to make a play defensively, Waunakee wasted no time; Conner Loy pressured DeForest’s quarterback, whose wobbly pass was picked off by Will Boldon. Boldon returned the ball down to the DeForest 33, and the Warriors were threatening once more to close the gap.
After Nelson found Caden Lewis on a long pass to the seven-yard line, Waunakee was faced with another goal-to-go situation. Back-to-back flags, however, backed the Warriors up to the 21-yard line.
Nelson launched a shot down the middle of the field hoping to find his man in the end zone, but a Norskie defender stepped in front of the pass, picking off the ball to end the Warrior threat.
One more time, DeForest’s offense marched down the field, getting into the red zone with under six minutes to play. Hauser supplied another huge Warrior response, stepping up to intercept a Norski pass with 4:12 to go.
Waunakee took over on their own 10-yard line, with the game’s outcome likely to be decided on the ensuing drive. Unfortunately for the Warriors, they couldn’t manage to make a first down and were forced to punt with under three and a half minutes to go.
To make matters worse, Waunakee’s punt was blocked, giving DeForest the ball on the five-yard line. The Norskies scored on the very next play, making a tough comeback even more unlikely for the Warriors.
Down 15 points with 3:18 remaining, Waunakee quickly moved the ball into DeForest territory, getting big plays from Schaaf and Alec Morgan. The Warriors’ luck ran out with 2:26 remaining; Nelson’s pass was picked off in the flat after Waunakee’s receiver lost his footing.
DeForest was able to add one more touchdown to their total before the clock ran out, handing Waunakee a 35-13 loss; their first of the season.
“I was really proud of our kids’ effort,” said Waunakee’s Head Coach Pat Rice. “I thought the kids played pretty hard and stayed in there… Hopefully we learn through experience that we’ve got to play clean, we’ve got to handle our emotions – the ups and downs of the game – a little bit better. We have to be consistent.”
The Warriors (8-1, 6-1 Badger North) now turns their focus onto the postseason. Brackets have not been released by the WIAA, but the Warriors are likely to host their playoff opener next Friday night. Waunakee hopes to put the loss against DeForest behind them as soon as possible as they prepare for the playoffs.
“We better wash it out pretty quick,” Rice responded when asked how quickly the memory of tonight’s loss needs to leave his players’ minds. “Or it’ll be a short playoff run.”