By Josh Staloch
ASHWAUBENON – It was a slugfest to close out the regular season Friday night in Ashwaubenon as the visiting Redbirds put together a big game and played their way into the postseason with a 35-28 victory over the Jaguars in Fox River Classic Conference (FRCC) action.
“Obviously, we have a ton of respect for this Ashwaubenon program. I’ve known coach (Brian) Ryczowski for 20 years. And, so, yeah, I have a great deal of respect for that group over there,” De Pere coach Ben Strickland said. “We knew it was going to be a battle back-and-forth, we’re similar teams, offensively and defensively. I’m proud of our kids and the way they responded tonight. (Ashwaubenon) got some shots in on defense, but we were able to control the clock and play more type of football.”
The Redbirds (4-5, 4-3 FRCC) took first possession and were clicking right off the bat. Quarterback Easton Arendt got off to a hot start, picking up a first down on third-and-4 before throwing for a fresh set of downs on a fourth-and-4 play that saw him complete a pass to Michael Alexander.
Lucas Koskey picked up some big yards on the ground as well during that initial drive as the Redbirds put the Ashwaubenon defense on its heels before Arendt punched one in on a keeper from 4 yards out to get the scoring started.
The Jaguars, not to be pushed around by their opponent’s sustained opening drive, took possession at their own 38 and marched right down the field.
Ashwaubenon moved the chains a couple of times before quarterback Boone Kirst executed a textbook play fake on a 1st-and-15 play from the De Pere 25 and then hit Jacob McVane to get the Jaguars even on the scoreboard at 7-7.
The Redbirds responded with a gritty drive that featured a lot of hard running from Koskey as well as Arendt, who came through with a clutch keeper play on 4th-and-1 to move the chains, setting up an Alexander run across the goal line from a yard out later in the drive to make it 14-7 De Pere early in the second quarter.
Disaster struck for the home team on the first play of its ensuing drive as a Kirst pass was tipped at the line and deflected high into the air. De Pere linebacker Aidan Hill was somehow, while falling down after hitting the brakes hard to make a play on the tipped ball, able to come up with a huge interception to give his team the ball back at the enemy’s 30-yard line.
Four plays later, Arendt, rolling out to his left from 16 yards out on first down, couldn’t find an open receiver so he decided to keep it himself and scored to make it 21-7.
Later in the second, the Jaguars defense came up with a big play as Jack Kulman tipped an Arendt pass on third down and came up with an interception. The Ashwaubenon offense made the most of the opportunity as Kirst hit Jayden Schoen in stride at the corner of the end zone from 20 yards out to close the gap to a touchdown at 21-14.
De Pere’s offense went right back to work though. Between runs from Koskey and Arendt, as well as a costly pass interference call on Ashwaubenon, the Redbirds quickly found themselves in Jaguars’ territory. On a 3rd-and-3 play from the 32, Arendt let one fly downfield, a perfect pass to Hayden May for a score to put the visitors up 28-14.
“We gave 110% effort tonight, all 48 minutes of the game,” Arendt said after the victory. “That’s probably our best overall effort of any game this season. Coming into this game knowing the winner goes to the playoffs, that kind of set it up for us.”
The third quarter saw Ashwaubenon get back into it thanks to a big play from Kirst, who found Caden Van Duyse on a 3rd-and-20 play that ended up at the De Pere 1-yard line. McVane would finish it off with a run across the goal line later in the drive to cut De Pere’s advantage to 28-21.
Ashwaubenon’s defense then did its job and held the Redbirds on the following series to give its offense the ball back at its own 20.
On 3rd-and-13, Kirst again found Van Duyse for a crucial reception, getting the ball out to midfield. He followed that up with another completion to Eli Zollar, who rumbled his way across midfield for a 19-yard gain.
Another big play followed next as McVane rumbled his way down to the 13 before Kirst capped the drive with a brilliant play that saw him escape a couple of tackles before finding Zollar at the left edge of the end zone to even the score 28-28.
The Redbirds’ offense refused to rattle though. With time winding down on the fourth quarter, De Pere’s front line won battle after battle on the ensuing drive, allowing Koskey to go off for several big runs before Alexander punched in the winning score with a run up the gut from a yard out.
“It came down to execution at the end and I’m proud of our kids,” Strickland said. “On defense, we were able to come up with a big plays when we needed them and then our offense, being able to finish it with a couple of first downs at the end there, they did a really good job.”