West De Pere falls in state title game
By Greg Bates
MADISON – For how complete an effort the West De Pere football team played in its first four playoff games, Friday’s WIAA Division 2 state championship game was an anomaly.
The Phantoms’ defense came in allowing just 6.5 points per game in the postseason and was coming off a five-turnover performance in Level 4. The offense had averaged 35.3 points per game during their “second season” and was rolling when it got the ball.
In the state title game, West De Pere couldn’t force a turnover and Kettle Moraine scored on four of its first five drives. The Phantoms — after scoring 10 first-quarter points — were uncustomarily held scoreless the final 38 minutes and 21 seconds.
“We just didn’t play well, flat out,” West De Pere coach Chris Greisen said. “I’m disappointed for the kids, man. They put a lot of time in and effort. I’m really proud of them. I tell you, I love these kids whether we won or lost. But they battled all year, we just had a bad day.”
West De Pere star running back Najeh Mitchell paced the team with 15 carries for 63 yards and 58 yards receiving on five catches.
“Getting here in the first place just means something, and, yeah, we didn’t come out with what we wanted to come out with, I’m still proud of my guys,” Mitchell said. “We played the best game we could have. Everybody tried. I couldn’t have asked more from them.”
Kettle Moraine (11-3) outgained West De Pere (12-2) 390-265. The stout Lasers defense, which allowed just 4.3 points per game in its previous three playoff games, was as good as advertised.
After four quarterback sacks, the Phantoms tallied just 38 total yards on the ground.
“We just couldn’t run it like we wanted to,” Greisen said.
Kettle Moraine rushed for 195 yards and threw for the same amount.
“All year we came out and battled and I felt like today. we just could never come up with a big play to change the momentum,” West De Pere senior defensive back Thomas Walder said. “They got off to a fast start, and we just couldn’t find that spark and sadly we came up short.”
Kettle Moraine marched down the field on the opening possession, converting a pair of third downs and one fourth down. Quarterback Chase Spellman capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.
West De Pere needed just three plays to answer. Mitchell took a swing back from quarterback Duke Shovald and rumbled 50 yards down to the Kettle Moraine 36. Mitchell rushed for eight yards and then Shovald hit Langdon Nordgaard on a beautiful throw and catch for a 28-yard score to tie the game at 7-7.
Greisen opted for an onside after a Kettle Moraine penalty had West De Pere kicking off in Lasers territory. The Phantoms recovered the onside kick at the Kettle Moraine 34. Not being able to convert a third-and-9, West De Pere brought in kicker Bryce Smith for a field goal. The senior hit a 36-yarder to give the Phantoms the lead with 2:12 left in the opening quarter.
West De Pere didn’t score the rest of the game.
“I think on offense we had the mentality that every time we had the ball we were going to score and score and score,” Shovald said. “Then we kind of hit a brick wall and we just didn’t have enough juice to keep going.”
Kettle Moraine got a 1-yard touchdown run from Nolan Schoop to go in front, 14-10.
West De Pere was driving on its next drive after an 11-yard completion from Shovald to Nordgaard to the Lasers’ 38. Two plays later, Andrew Kroll caught a swing pass and raced for 10 yards; however, he fumbled. Kettle Moraine recovered.
The next play, Dylan Portz took a handful and went 68 yards down his own sideline into the end zone for a 21-10 lead. The sequence could have been a 14-point swing.
“Talk about a momentum swing,” Greisen said. “We were able to go up and down the field. We thought we had a great gameplan, but at the end of the day, it’s about big plays. Besides the score, you can look at a number of big plays and the team that has the most big plays is usually going to win. They just had more big plays than we did.”
Starting from their own 44 on their next possession, West De Pere got to the 9-yard line after a 9-yard run by Mitchell on first down. A botched snap and a delay of game pushed the Phantoms back. Smith was brought on for a 37-yard field goal attempt, but the snap was bobbled by the holder and the kick was missed.
Getting inside the Kettle Moraine 10 and not coming away with points was tough for West De Pere’s offense.
“We made mental mistakes by ourselves,” Mitchell said. “We couldn’t really capitalize on those, so that’s just on us.”
Kettle Moraine added a field goal late in the half to go into the locker room up 24-10.
West De Pere had the ball first coming out of half. The guys were confident they could cut their deficit in half.
A pair of penalties pushed the Phantoms behind the sticks, and they couldn’t recover. Kettle Moraine drove down and kicked a field goal to go up three scores.
“We were saying, ‘Offense is going to score here and then we’re going to get a big stop and we’re going to go down and score and we’re going to take the lead or tie the game,’” Walder said. “But offense, it sadly didn’t happen and then defense didn’t either.”
West De Pere ran just 21 plays for 67 yards in the second half. The offense got three first downs and held the ball for just 7 minutes, 37 seconds.
“I’m proud of my guys,” said Shovald, who finished 14-for-26 passing for 213 yards and one touchdown. “We’ve been working for this all offseason, since August. It’s sad it had to come to an end like this, but I’m proud of my guys.”
Thomas Mudd had a game-high 12 tackles, 2.5 for loss and a half sack. The senior revealed after the game to his coaches and teammates that he played the majority of the game with a broken right hand. His hand hit a helmet in the first quarter and he stayed in. Late in the game, he hit the ground and heard it fracture.
“I kept it quiet, because I had to play for my team,” Mudd said. “It was my last game, why not, right?”
Mudd exemplified West De Pere’s saying of using girt all season, It lasted until the final play of the final game of the season.
“This is one gritty team, man,” Greisen said. “We weren’t even supposed to do that well in our conference and to make it all the way down to Madison says something about these kids and this program and how hard they worked. I’m awfully proud of them.”
The 21 seniors on this year’s West De Pere had a great run in their career. They capped it with a silver ball and get to bring it back to their school.
“This class, we have our sweatshirts, they created a legacy,” Shovald said. “They showed these young guys what hard work is and how to transform your body and stuff.”
Added Walder: “We were a team that played for each other, went out there every day and believed and left our legacy for the West De Pere community and this football program.”
“All I have to say is I love my guys,” Mudd said. “I wouldn’t rather play football than with anyone else.”