By Rich Palzewic
For the first time since the 2018 season, the West De Pere football team is heading to the WIAA state title game.
With a chance to win the program’s third gold ball, the Phantoms play Kettle Moraine at 1 p.m. on Friday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison for the Division 2 crown.
West De Pere’s previous four trips to the title game — 2009, 2010-11, 2018 — were all in Division 3.
The Phantoms finished runner-up in 2009 and ’18 and won back-to-back state championships in 2010-11.
Both current head coaches — Matt McDonnell from Kettle Moraine and West De Pere’s Chris Greisen — were made available earlier this week to members of the media via Zoom.
Members of the Classic 8 Conference, the Lasers (10-3), a No. 1 seed in the postseason, finished in a tie for third with Arrowhead behind Mukwonago and Muskego — both Division 1 schools — in the conference.
Kettle Moraine has made only one other trip to the state title game — in 1988 when it won the Division 2 championship.
“We’ve been playing good defense down the stretch,” McDonnell said. “That’s what people have been talking about the most.”
Unlike the Phantoms, Kettle Moraine hosted three playoff games before beating Brookfield Central, another No. 1 seed, in the state semifinals, 7-0.
“Everyone is super excited,” McDonnell said. “I don’t know that everybody realizes how special this is for the kids and how hard it is to get to this level — everything has to align, and you have to stay healthy.”
After giving up 84 points in their first three games of the season, the Lasers only surrendered 68 points and posted three shutouts in their last 10 games.
“Early on, we were still playing around with the defensive scheme,” McDonnell said. “We changed some personnel things. Offensively, in those early games, we tried to throw the ball too much and put our defense on the field too often and got into some shootouts. Since then, the kids have been flying around and making a bunch of plays on defense.”
McDonnell mentioned defensive standouts Nolan Schopp (114 tackles), Sam Coufal (106) and Jonathan Ksobiech (89) as players to watch.
“Coufal might be the best defensive lineman in Wisconsin — he’s going to Miami as a preferred walk-on,” McDonnell said. “He never stays blocked and is relentless — the highest motor kid I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Defensively, McDonnell said it will be a huge challenge stopping West De Pere’s 1-2 punch of running back Najeh Mitchell and quarterback Duke Shovald.
“West De Pere is well coached,” he said. “They present a lot of problems on offense because of their balance. It’s high school football, though — it starts with stopping the run. We need to limit the explosive plays from (Mitchell).”
Offensively, Kettle Moraine averages 29 points per game.
Quarterback Chase Spellman has completed 129 of 225 passes for 1,916 yards with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
His favorite receiver has been Drew Wagner, who has corralled 47 balls for 888 yards (18.9 yards per catch) with nine touchdowns.
The Lasers use more of a running-back-by-committee approach, with four players each rushing for more than 200 yards.
Schopp (616 yards, nine touchdowns), Dylan Portz (558, eight), Spellman (345, five) and Chad Kohlmann (225, two) combined have rushed for 1,744 yards and 24 touchdowns.
West De Pere
Despite being known for their offensive prowess, the Phantoms (12-1) have been playing lockdown defense in the playoffs.
West De Pere, a No. 3 seed, has given up only 26 points in its four wins — 6.5 points per game.
During the regular season, the Phantoms, members of the Fox River Classic Conference, allowed 14 points per game.
“It’s been our execution,” Greisen said about the defense. “Besides being well-coached by our defensive staff, the guys have been going after the football. Against Kaukauna (in the state semifinals), we forced five turnovers and forced four against River Falls (in Level 3).”
Greisen said after the 2021 season, the coaching staff had a long talk with the team.
“We determined we needed more grit,” he said. “We were in some tough games this season, and now we’re in the state championship game. As an example, in a close game with Pulaski (in Week 5) at halftime, we allowed only 15 total yards of offense in the second half. Our kids had to dig deep and find that grit — that’s why we’re here today.”
Defensively, the Phantoms have seven players who have recorded 50 or more tackles — Joseph Joiner (115), Jacob Brier (78), Thomas Mudd (77), Isaac Kaster (67), Easton Deschane (58), Christian Solis (58) and Nolan Mathews (51).
Mudd has picked off six opposing quarterback passes, while Carter Schmitt has corralled five.
Offensively, Mitchell, a Division II commit to the University of Minnesota Duluth, has rushed for 1,679 yards on 283 carries (5.9 yards per carry) with 27 touchdowns.
Shovald is 161 of 251 passing (64%) for 2,257 yards with 23 touchdowns against only three interceptions.
West De Pere’s top receivers are Ryder LeSage (53 receptions, 713 yards, six touchdowns), Langdon Nordgaard (31-408-2), Ben Lemirand (18-324-5), Mitchell (23-314-3), Joey Riesenberg (8-214-0) and Kaleb Cameron (14-201-2).
The Phantoms are averaging 36.3 points per game.
Greisen, a former quarterback in the NFL and the Arena Football League, said his team felt disrespected by its No. 3 seed in the playoffs.
“Whether it’s a computer or someone else (who seeded us), it didn’t sit right with us,” he said. “When you’re an 8-1 team and a No. 3 seed, but the No. 2 seed (New Richmond) was 6-3, I didn’t understand that math. I’m a math teacher, and that doesn’t seem like the right math to me. We tell the kids all the time, ‘There’s going to be injustice in your life somehow, some way, but it’s how you handle it. You control two things — your attitude and effort.’ We couldn’t do anything about it — we’ve used it as fuel.”
Greisen said his team’s Week 9 loss to Bay Port, 34-27, gave his team the confidence moving forward it could compete with anyone.
The Pirates advanced to the Division 1 state semifinals before losing to Kimberly, 42-21.
“We didn’t play well defensively against Bay Port,” Greisen said. “Our defense coordinator said that was the worst game we played all year, and we were still within seven points of them. I’m not into moral victories, but we knew we could play better.”
By Rich Palzewic