By Rich Palzewic
SUAMICO – After a slow start, the Bay Port football team turned it on against Fox River Classic Conference rival De Pere.
The Redbirds jumped ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, only to see the Pirates score 42 unanswered points in a 42-14 Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Assocation (WIAA) Division 1 Level 1 playoff victory on Oct. 21 at Bay Port High School.
The Pirates (10-0) advanced to Level 2 where they will host Wausau West — a 28-14 winner over Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln in Level 1 — on Friday, Oct. 28.
“De Pere is well coached and gave us their best stuff early on,” Bay Port coach Gary Westerman said. “They showed up and had a good game plan. We weathered the storm early and made some adjustments. Penalties hurt us again tonight.”
The Redbirds’ (4-6) first possession was the highlight of the evening for them.
In an 18-play, 80-yard drive that took 10 minutes and 24 seconds off the clock, De Pere converted on three third-down plays and three fourth-down plays in jumping ahead 7-0.
Quarterback Easton Arendt hit Hayden May with a 2-yard touchdown toss in the right corner of the end zone.
“We started fast and knew it was about sustaining drives,” first-year De Pere coach Ben Strickland said. “It gave us some momentum to start — I was proud of the guys.”
Westerman was impressed with De Pere’s start.
“It was a nice mix of dinking and dunking,” Westerman said of the drive. “It’s hard for teams to go down the field in 18 plays, but they were able to do it.”
Bay Port outside linebacker JoJo Azure, a North Dakota State University verbal commit, said his team made some defensive adjustments after the Redbirds’ first drive.
“That first drive was on the defense — we shouldn’t let that happen,” he said. “We had too many penalties and made too many mistakes. We had too many guys aligned wrong. We started running better stunts (later in the game) and got to the quarterback.”
The top-seeded Pirates immediately responded with a five-play, 66-yard touchdown drive capped by a Blake Buchinger 29-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.
De Pere, seeded No. 8, had another promising drive on its next possession — marching from its own 19-yard line to Bay Port’s 24 — but turned it over on downs after 11 plays.
The Pirates surged ahead 14-7 toward the end of the second quarter when quarterback Cole Bensen barreled into the end zone from 3 yards out.
Bay Port, which beat De Pere 42-14 during the regular season, could have gone up 10 points a few minutes later. However, kicker Owen Bellisle’s 35-yard field goal attempt missed wide left as the first-half clock expired.
The Pirates tacked on short touchdown runs from Bensen and Tevyn Montgomery in the third quarter to grab a 28-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
After Arendt was picked off by Landon Gauthier early in the fourth quarter, Buchinger, who ended with 134 yards on 15 carries, added his second and third touchdowns of the night to make it 42-7 after Bellisle’s extra points.
To end the scoring, the Redbirds scored a late touchdown on Devin Koskey’s 57-yard dash down the right sideline.
Bay Port amassed 419 yards of total offense compared to De Pere’s 245.
Bensen was 10 of 16 passing for 171 yards, while Arendt was 17 of 32 for 134 yards.
The Pirates rushed for 248 yards on the ground but were hampered by seven penalties.
Bay Port’s Brett Shipley nabbed three passes for 94 yards.
Strickland reflected on his first year on the sideline at De Pere.
“I’m excited about the direction of the program and the future,” he said. “It was a learning experience — both as an organization and with the teams we played. We battled some adversity, especially early on.”
Last year’s starting quarterback, Gabe Herman, was hurt on the first play during the first game of this season, forcing Arendt, a junior, to take over the quarterback duties.
“You can’t worry about the guys who aren’t playing, but Gabe was a big piece,” Strickland said. “When he went down, it took us a bit to see what type of team we’d be. It also allowed opportunities for other guys to grow and gain experience.”
By Rich Palzewic