The theme continued into the postseason.

Lake Mills struggles to start games, but the L-Cats sure have developed a penchant for finishing them.

Sixth-seeded Kettle Moraine Lutheran celebrated its first playoff appearance in seven seasons by taking one-score leads three times on the third-seeded L-Cats. Lake Mills responded each time and finally prevailed in overtime 28-27 in a Division 4 Level 1 game on Friday.

The Cardiac Cats, as the announcer routinely dubbed them, made plenty of mistakes in all phases, but smoothed those over with several clutch plays.

Junior quarterback Caden Belling completed 15-of-35 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a score. Sophomore receiver Matthew Stenbroten caught six passes for 104 yards and two scores, including a game-tying catch in the fourth quarter and the go-ahead score in OT for Lake Mills (8-2).

“We’ve really struggled to play four quarters in the game,” Stenbroten said. “We’re really a second half team, which really sucks, and we need to work on that, especially going into round 2. There’s 16 teams left, and we’re one of them.”

Kettle Moraine Lutheran (4-6) countered with huge games from sophomore quarterback Landon Hagenow, who completed 7-of-23 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns, and senior running back Benjamin Zylka, who rushed for two scores.

The L-Cats scored first in the extra period, with Belling throwing a jump ball for Stenbroten in the left corner of the end zone. Sophomore kicker KC Hagedorn finished a perfect 4-for-4 on extra points to put Lake Mills up by seven.

Zylka answered for the Chargers, who converted on a third-and-six play from the 10-yard line on a toss play. Zylka extended the ball and broke the plane for the touchdown, and KML elected to end the drama one way or another by going for two.

The Chargers called Zylka’s number one last time on a play straight up the middle. Junior linebacker Sam Horkan shot through and made the game-winning tackle as Zylka went down two yards shy of the goal line.

“They were in monster, so we’ve got three middle backers,” Horkan said. “I lined up on the wrong side at first, but I got over. They came in motion, so I knew it was coming that way. I shot Z gap and hit him. Thankfully (I got there). Feels great. They were a good team. It’s expected in the playoffs. We didn’t think it was going to be easy, but we didn’t expect it to come down like that. We’ve had a lot of last second wins.”

Lake Mills extended its winning streak to seven with its third one-point victory of the season, but the L-Cats gave head coach Tyler Huber plenty to worry about in the early going.

KML recovered two fumbles in Lake Mills territory in the first quarter. The Chargers pounced on a Rex Cassady fumble in the red zone and overcame two bad snaps to convert on a third-and-goal play from the 18, with Hagenow finding senior receiver Mason Knueppel in the right corner of the end zone. Matthew Thistle’s extra point gave the Chargers a 7-0 lead with 4 minutes, 38 seconds left in the opening quarter.

Thistle then sent a short kickoff to Lake Mills senior Cole Flood, who flubbed the attempt to collect it. Senior linebacker Brady Herman fell on the fumble and the Chargers were in business at the 30.

Lake Mills quickly responded with a stop on downs. Horkan and Stenbroten sniffed out play action to sack Hagenow for a six-yard loss and KML turned the ball over after two incompletions.

The L-Cats took over at their own 33 and were poised to score after springing senior running Carson Lund up the middle for a 51-yard gain. Knueppel made a touchdown-saving tackle at the 10, and the Chargers escaped unscathed with two pass break-ups in the end zone followed by a missed field goal attempt by Hagedorn. The kick hit the post with 16 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Chargers lost two fumbles in the second quarter while trying to pad the lead. Stenbroten recovered KML’s third high snap of the half at the Chargers’ 32, but the L-Cats stalled on downs. KML quickly drove inside Lake Mills’ 10 with a 45-yard wheel route pass to Zylka and a 21-yard run by Hagenow off an option fake to the 10. But senior running back Brandon Kabelowsky lost the handle following a third down handoff, and the ball floated right into the hands of Lake Mills junior linebacker Ben Buchholtz.

After the L-Cats went three-and-out, Buchholtz came up big again with a third down sack at midfield. Cassady broke through to block the punt and junior Darin Phillips recovered the ball at the 43.

This time, Lake Mills finally cashed in with a six-play drive covering 57 yards. Stenbroten’s first catch of the game covered 32 yards after he got behind his defender. Three plays later, Belling lofted a pass for Buchholtz, who caught the ball in mid-air along the sideline, then barreled his way past two defenders at the goal line for a 14-yard TD with 1:35 left in the half.

KML returned the kickoff to the 40 and had just enough to put together a 60-yard scoring drive to take the lead into halftime. A pair of pitch plays to Kabelowsky and Zylke netted 30 yards and a pass interference call in the end zone moved the Chargers closer. Zylka finished things off, taking a pitch on the right side and following blockers into the end zone with 19 seconds left in the second quarter.

The upset-minded Chargers stayed aggressive to start the second half, moving the ball to midfield and then going for it on fourth-and-one on their own 47. Senior lineman David Bruce stuffed Kabelowsky for a two-yard loss. Bruce led the L-Cats with seven total tackles.

Cassady began the ensuing drive with seven tough yards on the ground. Belling followed with another rainbow pass for Stenbroten for a 24-yard pickup to the 7, and carried out a perfect fake two plays later for a 4-yard TD run to tie the game with 6:17 left in the third quarter.

The Chargers took their final lead when Hagenow threw a 71-yard scoring pass to senior receiver Spencer Stern. The L-Cats bit hard on the run fake and Stern was wide open down the far sideline to put KML up 21-14 with 10:50 left in regulation.

Lake Mills answered in just over three minutes with a familiar combination. Belling hit Stenbroten for 38 yards to the KML 18, then ran for eight yards to set up first-and-goal at the 7. On the next play, Belling threw another jump ball for Stenbroten in the right corner of the end zone. Thistle appeared to win the ball and had possession coming down, but when officials hovered over the two to make a determination, Stenbroten had the ball.

Touchdown.

“Caden, he looks my way all the time,” Stenbroten said. “Props to him, because I get the job done. Our O line has been doing pretty good, too. Everybody’s been blocking. We really do good in the second half, especially when it’s a close game. Not many teams go into overtime like us and get the job done.”

Both teams had two chances over the final seven minutes of regulation. Mason Levake was short on a 47-yard field goal attempt for Lake Mils with 1:39 to go. Lund intercepted a pass on KML’s ensuing possession after senior linebacker Michael Stenbroten flew in and flattened Hagenow during the throw.

The extra period fell into place the way it always seems to in crunch time for this team.

After starting the season 1-2, the L-Cats pulled out back-to-back one-point wins over Luther Prep and Lakeside Lutheran. They won by four over Beloit Turner and seven over Lodi to extend the winning streak heading into the postseason.

Huber wasn’t handling out style points, afterwards, but he commended his L-Cats nonetheless.

“We are able to make plays when we need them, that’s for sure, Huber said. “We’ve got some playmakers that are playing for us. Big pressure situations, you earn (the right to be in) pressure situations. I wish we didn’t earn them sometimes, the way we played the first three quarters.

It’s a big time game, a playoff game. Obviously, those seniors are playing for KML, they don’t want to go home, just like our kids.

They played hard and executed some things and they did a great job of preparation for us this week, so I tip my hat to their coaching staff and their kids. That’s a good football team.

“You throw records out the window when it’s playoff time. It’s 0-0 and one team moves on. I’m happy with our group and earning one more opportunity.”

Buchholtz added six tackles, while Horkan, Matthew Stenbroten and Cassady each had five. Michael Stenbroten and Cooper Murphy each had four. Junior lineman Derek Bruce had three.

“Our down lineman (Derek and David) are brothers, and they play hard — Derek especially,” Lake Mills defensive coordinator Steve Navarro said. “He’s the backbone of our team. He’s our nose guy. You’ve got to have a good nose guy to play our defense. Our linebackers, Ben and Sam, are always in alignment. Very proud of them. Our LBS Ben and Sam, he’s always in alignment, always there where I am putting him. Very proud of him.

“We had a couple guys out of alignment (against their run game) and kind of fixed that. Our kids are coachable. Once we figured out what they were doing, we got them in alignment the way we wanted to and shut them down. They are a good team. We are a good team, too. Our defense, we’ve told them all year, we’ve got to play four quarters. We had missed plays during a game that’s not playing our best ball. Going forward I think these guys are pumped up.”

Huber credited players and coaches alike for making sure this wasn’t a rebuilding campaign after last year’s loaded senior class departed.

“I give credit to our kids and our coaching staff,” Huber said. “I have a great staff. Steve Navarro, coach Carmody, Jeremy Roach, Kris Walters, Brian Kelly, Nate Olson, Bobby Rose, all of those guys are outstanding.

They bring their lunch pail to work every single day. It’s a lot of fun at practice. Our preparation is second to none throughout the week, and our kids work hard. They had a great offseason.”

Lake Mills travels to play Columbus in a Level 2 game this Friday. The two teams shared the Capitol North title with matching 6-1 records. Columbus won the head-to-head meeting 29-0 in Week 3.

LAKE MILLS 28, KML 27, OT

KML 7 7 0 7 6 — 27

Lake Mills 0 7 7 7 7 — 28

First Quarter

KML — Knueppel 18 pass from Hagenow (Thistle kick)

Second Quarter

LM — Buchholtz 14 pass from Belling (Hagedorn kick)

KML — Zylka 14 run (Thistle kick)

Third Quarter

LM — Belling 4 run (Hagedorn kick)

Fourth Quarter

KML — Stern 71 pass from Hagenow (Thistle kick)

LM — Ma. Stenbroten 7 pass from Belling (Hagedorn kick)

Overtime

LM — Ma. Stenbroten 25 pass from Belling (Hagedorn kick)

KML — Kabelowsky 10 run (run failed)

Team statistics — First downs: KML 5, LM 12. Rushing: KML 34-170, LM 28-142. Passing: KML 157, LM 185. Fumbles lost: KML 5-2, LM 3-2. Penalties: KML 6-40, LM 7-65

Individual statistics — Rushing: KML Kabelowsky 13-70, LM Lund 9-68, Belling 6-27. Passing (comp.-att.-int.) KML Hagenow 7-23-2, LM Belling 15-35-1. Receiving: KML Knueppel 3-36, LM, Ma. Stenbroten 6-104, Buchholtz 1-14

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