Five questions: Get to know Waukesha foes
Stevens Point, West De Pere stand between local teams and state titles
The WIAA football championship games begin Thursday, though Catholic Memorial (Division 3) and Waukesha West (Division 1) will have to wait until Friday to play for state championships.
Memorial will face West De Pere at 10 a.m., and following the Division 2 game between Cedarburg and Waunakee, Waukesha West will meet Stevens Point at 4 p.m.
Kyle Means of the Stevens Point Journal and Scott Venci of the Green Bay Press-Gazette were kind enough to chat about the Friday foes. We'll start with Stevens Point...
NOW: What was the difference between the game against Rapids in the regular season finale (a 40-15 game) and the playoff game (a 29-28 thriller in Level 2)? Coach Pete McAdams went for a two-point conversion with 20 seconds to go for the win. What were you thinking as that play unfolded? That had to raise an eyebrow or two in the crowd.
KM: Unfortunately I wasn't able to cover either SPASH/Rapids game this year in person, but from gathering reactions I feel can speak on them. The regular season game was for the outright Wisconsin Valley Conference title, and I believe SPASH's feeling of ownership of the title (they won it two of the prior three years) propelled them to a big win. In the Level 2 game, you were asking the Panthers to beat their toughest rival for a second time in nine days - obviously hard - and it wound up being the exact kind of struggle one would expect.
As for going for two for the win, coach McAdams is not afraid to take calculated risks, and that was definitely one for him, informed explicitly by his feel for his team in that moment. McAdams often gets a great feel for his team on the field during games. That's part of what makes him a great coach.
NOW: I heard the headline in Stevens Point was "Finally!" after SPASH won its Level 4 game. What kind of burden has this long hiatus from the state-title game been, advancing to state for the first time since the 1970s? Does it feel like a curse around SP, and can you put into perspective the relief of finally getting to Camp Randall?
KM: I wouldn't call it a burden or a curse so much; it was more of a bewilderment at times or maybe an expectation, sort of like what Cubs fans have for their ventures into the postseason. SPASH followers sort of expected to only go so far, even when successful. But of course, when Saturday unfolded and they clinched the state game berth, it was a great release for everyone involved. For a while now people had these expectations of SPASH going to state and at certain times, they had to question themselves, but at last they were being validated.
NOW: Are you surprised this is the team to finally break through? How has the team evolved after a rough start to the season?
KM: Yes, I am surprised. This team was in a bad place at the end of September when they were 2-3, the last loss coming to Wausau West, a team that hadn't beat them since the early 1990's. At the same time though, by the postseason, I had this feeling of if state was going to happen, it would only make sense (as far as SPASH is concerned) to do it when expectations were at a time so low.
As for the team's evolution, I think a large part of it was this team knowing that what didn't kill them made them stronger. SPASH lost to some powerful teams (Kenosha Bradford, Minnetonka, Minn.) early in the year but those game didn't have any effect on their conference standing. The first key to their current streak was that they could focus on winning out in the WVC, which they did, and that propelled them into the postseason. The talent has always been there for this team, what they're doing now is a testament to added confidence and shoring up some execution in their playbooks.
NOW: Seems pretty clear that Tanner Kolbeck is the pivot point of the offense. What's he like as a running back and who are some other players on both sides of the ball that make the Panthers tick?
KM: Kolbeck is in many ways a typical SPASH feature back - tireless, tough, basically a downfield runner who can also be useful outside the tackles with his athleticism. Depending on the opponent, you can give Kolbeck the ball 15 times or 35 times and you'll get good contributions from him.
Other players to look for - quarterback Bobby Gregorich is terrifically athletic, he can run and throw and make plays out of nowhere. Brennan Nelson is the lead wide receiver, a great possession guy. Tight end J.T. Ford is the next reliable receiver with good size and speed for his size. On defense the trio of ends Joe Horvath, Adam Brandt and tackle Alex Wachowiak often cause ruckus in the backfield. Defensive backs Bryce Dominick, Clay Giese and Caleb Finn are most reliable to make plays on passes.
NOW: Care to venture a bold prediction for the title game?
KM: Uh...both teams will play hard.
No, really, I think this could be a tossup. It's interesting that neither one of these teams are the typical heavyweights playing in Madison in D-1, so there should be a lot of great play fueled, I think, by two teams looking to make the most out of this rare opportunity. I respect SPASH too much to pick against them, plus the folks in Point would kill me, but I expect the Panthers to have a heck of a time fighting back West's run attack. 27-23, SPASH.
On to Memorial...
NOW: After that steamroll through the regular season, it must be unusual for West De Pere to play in games decided by less than 30 points. The Seymour win in Level 2 stands out -- what was the difference between that game (a 28-21 final) and the early-season blowout (38-0)? Was Seymour that much better the second time around, or did West DePere not play its typical brand of football?
SV: Seymour certainly was a different team that day. It had attempted to run the ball a lot during the first meeting of the season and was unsuccessful in a 38-0 loss. The second time around, the Thunder relied on quarterback Troy Rottier to make plays with both his arm and legs. It appeared to take West De Pere by surprise.
The Phantoms also lost one of their two standout linebackers, senior Zak Rottier, to a broken tibia on the third play of the game. Rottier also served as a running back and was hurt on offense.
The injury appeared to rattle the Phantoms. Rottier is a big leader, and you could see several players were emotional after he left the game.
NOW: Coach Bill Turnquist talked about the arrival of Jay Tollefson as quarterback this season after playing at wideout last year. How has he improved over the course of the season. What type of weapon does he present to Memorial?
SV: Tollefson certainly has improved as he has gotten more experience. He still at times can make a questionable throw but has been so dangerous. He has the arm to make plenty of throws, and his running ability has given the Phantoms another option.
He rushed for more than 500 yards in the Bay Conference this season and has been doing a solid job running the ball in the postseason. In a semifinal against Appleton Xavier on Saturday, he rushed for a game-high 134 yards.
NOW: How close has West De Pere been to dropping one of the playoff games? Was there a moment or two that really allowed them to break through?
SV: Despite the past three games being close, none gave you the feeling like the Phantoms were going to lose. I'm sure the West De Pere faithful have been a little stressed of late, but I would have been surprised if West De Pere wouldn't have found a way to win each one.
NOW: What was the stumbling block for the team in last year's state title game (in a loss to Reedsburg)? With so many kids graduated off that team, how have the Phantoms been able to regroup so quickly?
SV: West De Pere shot itself in the foot way too much in the title game against Reedsburg. The game was tied at 7 at the half, but the Phantoms turned the ball over three straight times in the second half and fell behind 27-7 by the fourth quarter.
While the team did lose several standouts from that team, it's not a surprise to see them back. They did have some leadership returning with guys such as Rottier, and it was expected they'd make a big push for Madison again.
NOW: Other names we will hear on Friday, and a bold prediction perhaps?
SV: Along with Tollefson, the Phantoms have a really quick running back in junior Brandon Carter. He's a guy who didn't even play football last season but has really come on throughout the year. He was forming a nice combo with Rottier before Rottier got injured and has been a key throughout the playoff run.
Another guy to keep an eye on is senior Randy Hill, a kicker and wide receiver. Hill is by far the best kicker in our area and has had several schools - including some Division I - taking a look at him. He constantly is giving his team good field position and it's not uncommon for touchbacks to occur when he's kicking. Hill also has been the Phantoms' top receiver in the passing game and is a big weapon.
I haven't seen Catholic Memorial play, but the games it won this year were over some impressive teams.
I'd say right now I'm going with Catholic Memorial by a touchdown or two.
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