Warrior Stadium was all lit up, glowing like a diamond in the dark. It was a beautiful sight to Pat Rice.
The head coach of the undefeated WIAA Division 2 state champion Waunakee High School football team said it made the hair on his neck stand up.
Fans of the 14-0 Warriors know the feeling. The 2021 season has been full of heart-stopping thrills and excitement.
“I don’t know if it gets any better than bringing this thing home,” said Rice, pointing to the championship trophy as he spoke to a crowd that had gathered in the high school Fieldhouse to welcome back the Warriors on Friday.
Earlier in the day, Waunakee defeated Homestead 33-21 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison to win the seventh state title in school history. Rice has taken the Warriors to 11 state championship games.
This year’s version is special.
“I know this will be a team that will never be forgotten,” said Rice.
Rice talked about the season, which started with a tough win over Middleton from the Big Eight Conference. Later, there was a comeback victory on the road over defending state champion DeForest.
Then came the postseason. Waunakee survived a physical battle against River Falls and came back to win in overtime. Rice also spoke about downing Menomonie, a team that employed a dizzying array of gadget plays, and how the smaller Warriors beat Hartford in the state semifinals, despite the giant size of the Orioles’ offensive line.
“We’ve all been through a lot,” said Rice. “I couldn’t be prouder of these players.”
Rice joked about how the season has aged him. “I used to have a full head of hair. I had a mullet,” he said.
Rice related how this year’s team loved the process of trying to get better each day. He talked about how the Warriors overcame injuries.
“They hung in there as a team,” said Rice. “It was next man up. What they were able to accomplish is truly amazing. They’re a good group. They’re not the biggest guys in the history of football, but they’re still here.”
Rice said they played their hearts out for the community and the Waunakee student body. The resiliency of this Warriors’ team has often been mentioned. That goes back to the alternate season in the spring, scheduled because of COVID. Waunakee went 6-0 during that campaign.
During his speech, Athletic Director Aaron May said of this year’s title-winning squad, “They did something nobody else can say they did. They won 20 games in one year.”
May also talked about how the seniors on the fall roster had been playing together since the fourth grade.
Rice said he felt bad for the seniors whose careers ended after the spring season.
“I think this would have happened for them, too,” said Rice.
The Warriors’ four captains also spoke at the Fieldhouse. Senior offensive lineman Jack Dotzler, who suffered a season-ending injury the first week of the fall season, said he was proud of his teammates.
“In eighth grade, one of our coaches said we could be something special if we put in the work, and we did it,” said Dotzler.
Rice noted how people wondered at the large contingent of players Waunakee brought to Friday’s state title game. He explained how the team had 41 seniors and just about as many juniors, which speaks to the strength of the program. Rice also talked about the team’s mantra: “I love football.” It started as a joke but turned out to be a simple truth for a Warriors’ squad that worked to keep on improving all season long.
Rice also mentioned how that sentiment was shared by all involved in the program, right down to the managers.
“They all did their job,” said Rice.