By Greg Bates
West De Pere football coach Chris Greisen wasn’t afraid to use the word dominating to describe his team’s effort in Level 3 of the playoffs.
And why would he be afraid? It most certainly was dominating.
No. 3-seeded West De Pere — after traveling for hours on a bus for the second straight playoff game — handily took down top-seeded River Falls 38-6 in a WIAA Division 2 matchup on Friday night on the University of Wisconsin-River Falls campus.
“I would say that was one of the most dominating performances from our defense from a full game standpoint,” Greisen said. “It was incredible.”
The six points the Phantoms allowed were on a seemingly meaningless kickoff return for a touchdown when River Falls was trailing by 31 points.
West De Pere’s defense has surrendered just one touchdown by an opposing offense in the last 10 quarters.
What makes this defense so good?
“One, our personnel,” Greisen said. “We’ve got some kids that are really good, talented young men and just hungry. Then the other part of it is Kegan Wirtz (defensive coordinator) and our defensive staff puts such a great gameplan together. They just executed.
“I was talking to Kegan on Thursday during our walkthrough and I said, ‘You only needed one series for the walkthrough.’ I said, ‘So, you guys are ready to go?’ He said, ‘We’ve been ready since Tuesday.’”
On River Falls’ second drive of the game, West De Pere stripped and recovered a fumble — one of four in the game — on the Wildcats’ 48-yard line.
The Phantoms marched down the field and Najeh Mitchell — who fumbled on his team’s first possession — scored on a 7-yard run.
Greisen saw an opening to execute an onside kick on the ensuing play, and West De Pere recovered.
That drive turned into a Bryce Smith 23-yard field to put the visitors up 10-0 still in the opening quarter.
After a Shane Kempen third-down sack forced River Falls to punt, West De Pere was back in business.
Quarterback Duke Shovald hit Kaleb Cameron and he rumbled 17 yards for a touchdown.
West De Pere (11-1) forced another River Falls (10-2) punt. After Shovald connected with Joseph Riesenberg for a 19-yard gain to the Wildcats’ 20, Mitchell took a screen pass and found the end zone from 17 yards out. That made it 24-0 right before halftime.
Having that big of a lead at the break was huge.
“Especially against a team that runs the ball primarily,” Greisen said. “Going into the game, we were reading an article in the local newspaper out here in River Falls and the coach complimented our defense and just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to try to keep the ball out of their offense’s hands,’ which is another nice compliment. That tells you it’s a team that’s not real confident that they can score quickly; they’re going to have to try to drive it.”
The Phantoms faked a punt on fourth-and-2 on their opening possession of the third quarter and converted. A few plays later, Mitchell had a 21-yard touchdown scamper.
River Falls had its lone chunk play of the game as it returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.
Joseph Joiner scored on a 1-yard touchdown plunge in the fourth quarter to end the scoring.
Greisen loved the way his playmakers showed up big in the big game.
“Najeh’s kind of the main cog, but Duke had a tremendous game minus that one interception — he had one bad throw on a slant. But otherwise he fit some balls in there and had some great reads,” Greisen said. “That defense gives you a lot of looks, a lot of different coverages and stuff like that and Duke navigated a lot through that and our receivers did a great job. Our fullback had some huge catches out in the flats. … And Duke, also, running, getting outside the pocket and extending plays with his feet and then making throws on the run. Those are huge, huge plays that he had and kept drives going.”
West De Pere will now play No. 6-seeded Kaukauna in Level 4 for the right to head to Madison for the Division 2 state title game. The Galloping Ghosts scored a 41-13 victory in Level 3 at No. 5-seeded Homestead.
West De Pere beat Kaukauna in Week 2 of the regular season, 43-42 in overtime. The Phantoms led 28-0 in that game before the Ghosts stormed back to send it into the extra session.
“It’s going to be a heck of a matchup,” Greisen said. “Two good teams, two well-coached teams and we’ll just see who executes better.”
Greisen reiterated that execution is going to be a main key in the game.
“We’re pretty confident that we’ll have a good gameplan against these guys, but we’re going to have to block and run hard, complete good reads, good throws and then just play sound defense,” Greisen said.
“They’re really good. In close games like this with two good teams, usually special teams comes into play. So, we’re excited.”
By Greg Bates