Big plays lift Catholic Memorial to Division 3 state championship

It was a game eerily reminiscent of the heartbreaking way the 2015 season ended. But in 2016, Catholic Memorial's football team changed the ending.

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It was a game eerily reminiscent of the heartbreaking way the 2015 season ended. But in 2016, Catholic Memorial's football team changed the ending.

The Crusaders defeated Notre Dame, the same foe that shocked CMH with a crazy comeback one year earlier in the state title game, and walked off with their second WIAA state championship in a 24-14 victory Nov. 18 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. The Crusaders (14-0) finished undefeated for the second time in school history, matching the feat accomplished in 1993, and laid claim to the Division 3 title.

CMH overcame four turnovers and two missed kicks -- mistakes similar to those that allowed Notre Dame to rally from death's door to win a 19-17 outcome one season ago.

"It was always in the back of our heads what happened last year, and we had to make sure it didn’t happen again," said junior linebacker CJ Goetz, who finished with eight tackles, two sacks and two pass breakups in the rematch. "It kind of gave us a little momentum to finish this one out."

It is the second state championship in five trips to the state finals for veteran coach Bill Young and Crusaders. They also took home the gold ball in 2012.

"At halftime, we could have been up by more than what we were, but our coaches didn’t let us get down on ourselves," said Eric Fridl, whose interception return for a touchdown represented perhaps the game's most crucial moment. "We’re still winning (at that point); there’s no reason to get down on yourselves. All it takes to win is to win by 1."

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Catholic Memorial receives the WIAA Division 3 state championship trophy following a 24-14 win over Green Bay Notre Dame Andrew Gruman

Fridl, whose 51-yard field goal as time expired in Level 2 allowed the Crusaders to still be alive in the upper levels of the postseason, missed a 48-yarder in the first half and saw his short kick partially blocked and ding off the crossbar to close the first half. That left CMH with a 14-7 lead, and that edge appeared to be in jeopardy when a fumble at the 7:42 mark in the third gave Notre Dame the ball at the Crusaders 30-yard line.

But the drive ended with Notre Dame's own missed field goal, partially blocked by Goetz, and two possessions later, Fridl caught a Notre Dame pass tipped by Mike Oechsner and returned it 44 yards for a score that gave his team a 21-7 lead with 2:38 left in the third.

"Mike Oechsner just made a great play on the ball," Fridl said. "I saw him making a break on the ball, so there was no reason for me to try and go get that tackle too, so I just kind of sunk off it. Right place, right time. It fell right into my hands, and I was fortunate to be able to take it back for 6."

It was the third big play that had netted Memorial points.  On the third play of the game, Jaylen Campbell broke free for a 70-yard touchdown to give Catholic Memorial a 7-0 lead. After Notre Dame tied the game on an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a Nate Ihlendfeldt touchdown, the Crusaders regained the lead on a 62-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Nimz to Max Cooper with 2:00 left in the first quarter.

"It’s awesome; we’ve been waiting for this since last year," Cooper said. "No matter who we played, getting back here, we just wanted to win the state championship. They came back and really showed great heart against us last year. We just couldn’t pull it off. This year, I thought we showed great heart and kept pushing the whole time. The momentum was on our side most of the game."

Fridl added a 27-yard field goal with 7:11 to play, and though Ihlenfeldt scored on a huge individual effort on a fourth-down play with 2:33 to go, Memorial recovered the onside kick and milked the rest of the clock.

"We have a tendency to shoot ourselves with turnovers here and there," CMH Hall of Fame coach Bill Young said. "We just were on the better end of it today. We still made some mistakes, but what an incredible finish to a great year.

"It is about adjustments. They were back blocking our backside linebacker and down blocking on our five technique and what we call punch. We just got our backside linebacker up and in, and it slowed down that running game."

Ihlenfeldt was limited to 90 yards rushing on 27 carries. By comparison, Campbell finished with 167 yards on 22 carries. The 14 wins represented a school record for CMH.

"I coached in 1993 when we were 12-0," said Young. "This one is 14. This is one of the best teams we’ve ever had. The team, the competition and the commitment was outstanding."

"It’s the best feeling you could ask for," said Cooper, who finished the season with 17 touchdowns. "We’ve been together since seventh grade. We’re brothers together, and it’s a great feeling to be undefeated and cap it off with the gold ball."

-- Andrew Gruman contributed to this article.

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Catholic Memorial's Mike Oechsner makes a highlight-reel interception, and the Crusaders hit a long touchdown pass to Max Cooper two plays later in the WIAA Division 3 state championship on Nov. 18, 2016.

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