By Greg Bates
ASHWAUBENON – As Najeh Mitchell bulled his way into the end zone with 3:09 remaining in the game, the West De Pere players started to celebrate.
A two-touchdown lead was finally going to be safe against Kaukauna. The Phantoms football team was going to state.
With the game tied at 7-7 late in the third quarter, West De Pere cranked it up another gear and scored 19 unanswered points to earn a 26-7 victory in a WIAA Division 2 state semifinal on Friday night at Ashwaubenon High School.
For the first time since 2018, West De Pere is heading back to the state championship game.
“It feels amazing,” said West De Pere defensive lineman Andrew Baumgart about his team heading to state. “We’ve been working so hard since summer. We’ve been waiting for this moment for our entire lives, and now we finally got it. Gold ball’s next.”
“This feels great, there’s nothing like it,” defensive end Jacob Breier said. “It’s euphoric. All our hard work paid off.”
Baumgart and Breier were two of the defensive stars for the Phantoms in the victory. Both recovered key fumbles as West De Pere forced Kaukauna into five turnovers — three fumbles and two interceptions.
“They were phenomenal,” West De Pere coach Chris Greisen said about his defensive effort. “When your defense plays like that, especially on a cold, windy night like this, it’s incredible.”
West De Pere held a potent Kaukauna offense to 125 yards on the ground and 104 through the air. The stingy Phantoms defense has allowed just 26 points in four postseason games.
It’s been fun for Mitchell and his offensive teams to watch the defense perform all season.
“Especially in the offseason, it’s hard to get yards against them,” Mitchell said. “I just feel like they don’t get enough credit. They’ve been keeping us in every game this year and I feel they deserve pretty much all of it.”
As the West De Pere defense continues to do its thing at a high level, so does Mitchell. The senior running back ran for a season-high 211 yards on 31 carries and two touchdowns.
“I just felt like in the second half our O-line stepped up the aggressiveness, which helped us a lot,” Mitchell said. “We got a lot of push, so that led to my success and running the ball pretty well.”
West De Pere (12-1) and Kaukauna (8-5) battled in Week 2 of the regular season as the Phantoms pulled off a 43-42 victory by scoring a 2-point conversion in overtime. The playoff game was totally different.
“We knew it was going to be a defensive game, and we had to run the ball. We had to run the ball a whole lot better,” Greisen said. “We did not execute well in the first half. We had too many missed assignments, but in the second half, to their credit, our linemen came out and they were determined to go win this game.”
On West De Pere’s second drive of the game, it drove down to the 1-yard line before getting stuffed on a fourth-down, goal-line stand by Kaukauna.
From the shadow of their own end zone, Kaukauna’s offense took possession. On the first play, star running back Noah Hofmann took a handoff and was stood up by Baumgart and some other teammates.
Easton Deschane stripped the ball in the end zone and Breier landed on it for the first score of the game.
“That running back was good, he slipped off me. But we ran to the ball, we pursued, I got the ball,” Breier said. “Our guys were ripping at it all night, you saw a lot of the balls on the ground. I was just there. I got the tuddy.”
Kaukauna got the ball first out of halftime down 7-0. Making notable adjustments at the break, the Ghosts’ offense marched down the field, converting a fourth-and-2 at the West De Pere 32. Hofmann,
who had 25 carries for 114 yards, finished off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown to tie it with 4:38 left in the third quarter.
On West De Pere’s ensuing drive, quarterback Duke Shovald hit wide receiver Langdon Nordgaard for a 15 yards down to the Kaukauna 33. Facing a third-and-10 from that same yard line, Shovald showed off his skills. Without an open receiver, Shovald bought time and worked his way all to his left near his own team’s sideline, spotted an open Ryder LeSage who had broken behind the defense. Shovald threw into the gusty wind and across his body to connect with LeSage, who caught it about the 5 and raced to the end zone.
“I talk to Duke all the time about using his feet, extending plays, that was awesome,” said Greisen, who played quarterback at the professional level. “Just a tremendous, tremendous play.”
That gave the Phantoms a 13-7 lead following a botched extra point. It was now the defense’s turn to shine.
Kaukauna converted a fourth-and-4 to get down to the West De Pere 24. When it looked as though the Ghosts could tie or even take the lead, Hofmann fumbled and defensive back Thomas Walder recovered at the 20 with 10:39 left in the game.
West De Pere’s offense then relied on its horse, Mitchell, to all but end the game. He had runs of 11, 6 and 9 yards to get down to the Kaukauna 11. Mitchell took a handoff, fought off potential tacklers and raced to the end zone for an 11-yard score that sealed the victory with 3:09 remaining.
On Kaukauna’s next series, Thomas Mudd collected his second interception of the game. One play later, Mitchell galloped 59 yards for another touchdown.
Mitchell was happy to break a long run.
“All game I felt like I could have, I was one guy away from making it, so at the end it just felt great,” Mitchell said.
Shovald finished the night 9-for-11 passing for 124 yards and one touchdown. LeSage led the receivers with four catches for 46 yards and the score.
West De Pere will now play Kettle Moraine for the Division 2 state title on Friday, Nov. 18 at 1 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium. The Lasers (10-3) are coming off a 7-0 victory over Brookfield Central.
As the West De Pere students and fans rushed the field following the state semifinal victory, Baumgart soaked up the crazy atmosphere.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It doesn’t even feel real at this moment, but we’re not satisfied yet. We’re waiting for that gold ball.”