By Rich Palzewic
SUAMICO – With the Fox River Classic Conference (FRCC) title on the line and just under six minutes remaining, Bay Port coach Gary Westerman rolled the dice on a fourth-down play on his own 21-yard line.
“I was trying to win a football game,” Westerman said. “If we didn’t make it, West De Pere would have had to score a touchdown and get a 2-point conversion to win.”
The Pirates (9-0 overall, 7-0 FRCC) converted, only to be faced with another fourth-down play moments later from the 31.
Bay Port also converted that play to help preserve the lead in a 34-27 victory over West De Pere (8-1, 6-1) on Friday in front of a packed house at Bay Port High School.
“I made the decision to go for it and not punt, but I didn’t call the play,” Westerman said. “The guys felt good about the play call, and it was a big situation. I trusted their preparation. We wanted to just go and win it.”
With 2:26 remaining, the Pirates, the No. 1-ranked Division 1 team in the state, faced a fourth-and-10 from the Phantoms’ 45-yard line.
Quarterback Cole Bensen hit receiver Ethan Houle for a 35-yard gain to seal the victory.
“I’m blessed to coach a great group of kids, and the coaching staff did a great job down the stretch making some adjustments,” Westerman said. “We gave up too many big chunks on defense, and that’s a concern. West De Pere is well coached — they’ll be a fit in Division 2.”
With De Pere winning the 2021 FRCC crown and COVID-19 wreaking havoc the season before that, Bay Port won its first conference crown since 2019 — the same season it lost in the WIAA Division 1 state title game.
“It feels good — our kids work hard,” Westerman said.
With both teams coming into the highly anticipated matchup with identical 8-0 records, the Pirates bolted out to a 14-0 lead just 7 minutes, 29 seconds into the game.
After Tevyn Montgomery took the opening kickoff of the game to midfield, Bay Port ran six consecutive running plays, with the drive culminating in Bensen’s 15-yard touchdown run.
After the Phantoms, the No. 3-ranked Division 2 team in the state, gained just two yards on their first possession, the Pirates drove 67 yards in 10 plays for another score.
The drive featured nine runs and a pass before Bensen crashed in from 1-yard out to make it 14-0 after Owen Bellisle’s extra point.
“The attitude and effort were there,” West De Pere coach Chris Greisen said. “After we were down 14-0, we started playing more sound football. We made too many mistakes and didn’t hit on enough plays. Bay Port is a good team and well coached. We battled and didn’t get blown out. We will watch the film and see where we can improve.”
The Phantoms got on the board late in the first quarter when quarterback Duke Shovald hit Benjamin Lemirand with a 30-yard touchdown pass.
After both teams exchanged punts, the Pirates were driving before West De Pere’s Thomas Mudd picked off a Bensen pass to set up another touchdown drive.
Running back Najeh Mitchell scampered around the right end from 21 yards out halfway through the second quarter — after Bryce Smith’s extra point, the game was tied at 14-14.
“Coach got into us (after we got behind 14-0),” Mitchell said. “We were playing scared at the start. After that, we didn’t play scared.”
The Pirates scored two more touchdowns before halftime to grab a 28-14 lead.
Bensen, who rushed for 213 yards on 33 carries and scored all five of his team’s touchdowns, ran in his third touchdown of the night on a 13-yard scamper with 4:22 showing on the first-half clock.
The senior quarterback added his fourth score of the first half four minutes later on a 3-yard run.
Not to be denied, the Phantoms pulled to within 28-17 at halftime when Smith booted a 28- yard field goal as time expired.
On Bay Port’s first possession of the second half, a fumble was recovered by Mudd.
Again, West De Pere scored off the turnover when Shovald hit Ryder Lesage on a 25-yard touchdown pass with two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Smith’s extra point pulled the Phantoms to within one score, 28-24.
Bensen scored his fifth touchdown of the game early in the fourth quarter on a 1-yard run to make it 34-24 — the extra point was blocked.
Smith added his second field goal of the night — this one from 30 yards out — with 7:25 remaining,
setting up the final drive heroics from the Pirates’ offense.
“It was a close game — which we expected,” said Montgomery, who gained 64 yards on seven carries. “It was a hard-fought game.”
Montgomery said the 14-0 lead gave his team some confidence.
“After the great start, we knew West De Pere would fight back,” he said. “With the end of the game (and us going for it three separate times on that drive), it was a matter of our front seven against theirs. I think I’d take our front seven over anybody in the state. It’s a confidence we have. We wanted to win the game right there and not give them the chance.”
Mitchell, who gained 76 tough yards on 18 attempts, said a game like this gives his team confidence heading into the postseason.
“Yeah, we lost, but we just played the best team in the state and only lost by seven points,” he said. “It gives us confidence moving forward. I’d say Bay Port is better than any team we’d play in the playoffs — it got us ready.”
Greisen also said he feels it gives his squad some confidence.
“I’ll be honest — I hate losing,” he said. “We know we’re a good team, and we felt like we could come into this environment — it was a great environment — and win this football game. We were a couple of plays away. We got banged up a bit, so we’ll have to get healthy.”
Despite the loss, Greisen said he still expects his squad earned a No. 1 seed in the playoffs when brackets are announced on Saturday.
“We’re 8-1 and went toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the state,” he said. “Both of our nonconference wins (against Hortonville and Kaukauna) came against teams in the playoffs.”
Shovald was 12-of-26 passing for 212 yards with two touchdowns, with Lesage hauling in five receptions for 118 yards.
The Phantoms gained 314 yards of total offense compared to Bay Port’s 434.
By Rich Palzewic