Nicolet football coach Brian Sommers knows that three-time state champion Homestead would have shrugged off the Houdini-style escape act that Whitefish Bay running back Davontae Johnson turned into an 80-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, a score that gave the Blue Dukes the lead for good in what would be a 35-0 North Shore decision over the Knights Saturday afternoon.
But Sommers, a former assistant at Homestead, knows that his current squad is not built the same way mentally as the Highlanders, and though the short-handed Knights continued to hit and play hard, he could tell a bit of energy left the room for his team after Johnson's sharp cutback against the grain opened a long-standing psychic wound for the Knights.
"It just showed a bit of the fragility of the kids playing within this program," he said. "We have a history here (of futility with no winning seasons in more than 20 years) and when something like that happens, the kids act like 'Uh-oh, here we go again'."
"That's when we really need strong senior leadership. We hope we can overcome things like that, but it's not going to happen overnight."
The loss dropped the Knights to 1-2 on the season. The players on the team and everyone else at Nicolet will finally start school on Monday after the repair work from the July 22 floods is finally finished.
Meanwhile, Bay coach Jim Tietjen was impressed with the tenacity of the Knights even as his team improved to 2-1 overall.
"They were playing their back-up quarterback and they weren't able to run the stuff they're used to, but they made us work our tails off," he said. "They got us in a scramble mode and showed that we have a lot of work to do. Lots of little mistakes here: penalties, alignment issues, other things. All those have to be repaired."
But even with those gracious words from his opponent, Sommers knows that he and the Knights would much rather be standing in the Blue Dukes shoes, mistakes and all.
With senior quarterback Brandon Kappel out with an injured thumb, the Knights sent in junior Bryce Bowen, who himself just got a cast off his hand this week. Nicolet worked for 112 yards in the first half, but could get no closer than the Bay 36.
Meanwhile, following Johnson's run, the Blue Dukes ground out an 81-yard, 11-play drive that Mike Leckie finished with a 16-yard scoot around the end to give the Bay a 14-0 advantage at the half.
The two teams combined for 13 penalties in the first half plus eight more in the second, but that scarsely slowed down the Blue Dukes, who would finish with over 370 yards of total offense.
They ground out a 14-play, 79-yard drive on their first possession of the third quarter as quarterback Cal Ehrke hit tight end Garrett Demuth with a four-yard TD pass. The key play on the march was a 33-yard deep sideline pass from Ehrke to Leckie. The play gave Bay a first and goal at the Nicolet eight.
A possession later, Bay started at its own 24 and in 10 plays would find paydirt again as Ehrke ran a bootleg for five yards and the score. The Blue Dukes would gain a remarkable 98 yards on the march, as they would have to overcome two holding penalties and one offsides infraction.
Johnson had a 22-yard run and Ehrke and end Zach Hessel (four catches for 70 yards) combined on a 32-yard pass that Hessel made a nice over-the-shoulder grab on.
Bay's last score came midway through the fourth quarter and covered 51 yards, almost all of them on the ground as Ehrke snuck it in from one-yard out.
Meanwhile, the Knight offense would run into a stone wall of a Bay defense in the second session as they were forced into four successive three-and-outs. Only when the Blue Dukes substituted on the final possession and with the running clock in place was Bowen able to complete three first-down passes in a row.
But the drive stalled at the Bay 24 as time ran out.
Ehrke would complete 10 of 18 passes for 138 yards for Bay while Johnson had 100 yards rushing on five carries. Leckie and Julian Posey rushed for 63 and 61 yards, respectively. Meanwhile the Blue Duke defense held Nicolet to 150 total yards.
But Tietjen was not going to look at the numbers and pretend to be happy.
"The Nicolet staff and their kids made us earn everything we got and then some," said Tietjen. "We just weren't ready to play in a lot of aspects. We lost a little focus and Nicolet was ready to play."
But Sommers would like to substitute that thought of "ready to play" with "ready to finish".
"We had a good week of practice," he said, "but for some reason we were a little flat today. The effort was still there, but if we're going to turn into a good football team we've got to get the details down pat and do the small things correctly all the time. We have to be precise."
"We played hard today, but not nearly well enough."
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