Herman hurt as De Pere loses season opener to Neenah
By Greg Bates
DE PERE – On the very first offensive play of the season, De Pere quarterback Gabe Herman was taken down and he felt like his left knee was hyper-extended.
The senior three-year starter felt pain, but he figured it would go away. It didn’t.
Herman, a tough dual-threat player, pushed through and played the first 2 ½ quarters against Neenah on Thursday night.
It didn’t matter how tough of a player Herman is, he couldn’t walk off this injury.
“I felt like I couldn’t run,” Herman said. “That kind of limited me a little bit on stuff I usually do. I feel like I was more focused on my knee than actually looking at the defense.”
With the De Pere offense struggling with their leader hobbling and the defense being shredded by Neenah’s high-powered rushing attack, that spelled doom for the Redbirds.
Neenah broke a 7-7 tie by scoring 39 unanswered points en route to a 46-7 victory in nonconference action at Nowak Family Field.
“I think we learn that everything that comes your way, you earn it,” said De Pere coach Ben Strickland in his first career game at the helm. “I think having a veteran group, we come onto the field and you have the expectation of success, but that doesn’t mean that’s going to happen. So, coaches, players included, we’ve all got to make sure we’re on the same page moving forward. We’ve got to learn from this tape, we’ve got to understand the type of team that we want to be this year and just take it a step at a time. We’ve got to allow it to sting and learn from it.”
The De Pere loss could be a lot more severe than just what reflects in the record column.
Herman was on his team’s sideline mid-third quarter with ice wrapped around his knee and crutches.
Usually upbeat, Herman was visibly shaken after the game talking about his injury.
“It sucks, first play of the game my senior year and that happens,” Herman said. “I feel bad because … there’s a lot of thoughts going through my brain right now.”
In his first two seasons as the starting quarterback, Herman led De Pere to a combined 16-2 record, including a Fox River Classic Conference (FRCC) title in 2021.
The reigning two-time Offensive Player of the Year in the FRCC spoke with a team trainer during the game about his injury.
“She said it’s probably something with the MCL,” Herman said. “I asked her about ACL and she said 5% chance. She said MCL wouldn’t be surgery and it would be 4-6 weeks-ish. But who knows, MRI could tell you something different.”
Herman is scheduled for an MRI on Friday morning.
Strickland knew his quarterback was hurting in the opening minutes of the game, and that shifted how he approached the team’s offensive attack.
“He felt like he could play, but obviously a little dinged up, so we talked about some of the things we would have to change based on how he was feeling and so it took out some of the things that we wanted to be able to accomplish,” Strickland said. “At the same time, we had enough in there to be able to execute, and we didn’t do that, from the coaching side as well as the playing side.”
The 46 points is the highest total a De Pere defense has surrendered since the 2019 season.
The Redbirds’ defense, with just two returning starters in linebacker Michael Alexander and defensive end Brennan Kincade, is young.
“It just humbles us,” Alexander said. “We know we have to work harder in practice. Obviously, that wasn’t good enough. We’ve just got to work.”
Neenah took a 7-0 late in the opening first quarter as star running back Jase Jenkins, who finished with four touchdowns, raced for a 50-yard score.
De Pere got its offense going on the next drive. The Redbirds converted a pair of third downs — passes from Herman to Grant Hohol for 17 yards and Herman to Mitch Derenne for 14 — to get down to the Neenah 24.
Facing a fourth-and-6, De Pere’s offense inserted its two defensive stars Alexander and Kincade into the game. Kincade ran a seam route and Herman floated a perfect pass to him as he caught it at the 8-yard line and rumbled into the end zone.
The Rockets took the lead back 13-7 on a 51-yard Jenkins touchdown run with 53.5 seconds left in the first half.
Jenkins added another score — this time a 4-yard run — on Neenah’s first possession of the third quarter to put the visitor’s up 19-7.
De Pere, looking to stay in the game, went to the air on its third play and Herman was intercepted. He came up limping and once on the sideline he laid down to get checked out by the training staff.
Neenah scored again to go up 25-7, but all eyes from the De Pere faithful were focused on their quarterback who was on the bench with his knee wrapped in ice.
Backup quarterback Easton Arendt came into the game and threw a pair of interceptions. De Pere turned the ball over five times, four via interception, and scored its lowest point total in a game since 2019.
Strickland put it on himself that his second-string quarterback wasn’t as fully prepared as he needed to be for game action.
“Easton’s a kid that last year did a great job running and throwing the ball, and so we’ve just got to adapt to his style and we’ll be able to do that,” Strickland said. “We’ve got a great O-line, a great front. I didn’t do a great job in terms of calling plays that could get us going in the run game, so I’ve got to evaluate too just the type of team we’re going to be, where we want our bread and butter to be and then to be able to push forward and improve.
“Like I told our guys, ‘You want this one to sting, because you grow the most from the hardest lessons. We’ve got to be able to learn from this and move on after 24 hours, after watching the film and move onto next week.’”
Next week, De Pere hosts Wausau West on Thursday. One year ago in their season opener, the Redbirds traveled to central Wisconsin and got thumped by the Warriors, 38-14.
It was the wake-up the De Pere players needed. The guys didn’t lose another regular-season game and scored nine straight wins.
“This happened last year, but this should not be accepted,” Alexander said. “We’re a great team and we have great talent. We’ll move on.”
Herman and Alexander both know they need to step forward as leaders of their team and rally their young team.
“I’ve got to get with our backup quarterback and bring him through some mental reps,” Herman said. “Even our receivers, too, there were a couple times we messed up when I was in. O-line, they have to get off the ball faster, they need to hit harder, they need to make some bigger holes for our running backs. If you can give 5% more, that’s all we’re asking. Defense has to step it up. That just can’t happen against any team, especially another hard running team like Wausau West. But there are so many things. We need to get more locked in in practice — we can’t be joking around as much. It starts with us captains. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that our guys are prepared for next Thursday.”