First-ever state finals berth a step away for Blue Dukess football team
Beats East, Waunakee up next
Whitefish Bay - Because he got smart in the second half, Whitefish Bay offensive coordinator Jake Wolter won't have to start looking for another job.
And because he was smart enough to give the ball to his all-world back Rashadeem Gray to the tune of 22 times and 170 yards in the second half, the Blue Dukes football team is en route to the WIAA State Division 2 semifinals for the first time in its history courtesy of a 24-14 level 3 victory over previously unbeaten Brookfield East last Friday night.
"It was kind of funny," said Wolter. "Rah- Rah (Gray's nickname) and I were talking about five or six weeks ago, and I told him that if we lose from here on out and you don't have at least 20 touches and you're not hurt, I'm going to fire myself (laughs)."
"In my mind, he's the best player in the state and he needs to have the ball."
Gray, who finished with 193 yards on 28 carries that included the game-clinching 59-yard burst for score with 1:45 remaining and who also scored the go-ahead TD on an 18-yard pass from quarterback Grant Menard with 3:53 remaining, appreciated the compliment.
"I was thinking I should take a knee (on that last TD run because East was out of time-outs)," he said, "but when you see that much open green in front of you, you just have to go for it."
"We're making history and we're not done yet."
Yes, the Blue Dukess are as their record-setting season improves to a school-best mark of 10-1. They now will play defending state D2 champion Waunakee (11-0) on Saturday at 2 p.m. in a WIAA state semifinal at Wisconsin Lutheran College Field in Wauwatosa.
The other semifinal has Marshfield (10-1) taking on Bay's North Shore rival Homestead (10-1)
The D2 state finals are in Madison, Nov. 16.
"We're not letting anyone stand between us and our dream," said Menard.
In beating East (10-1) for the second year in a row in the playoffs Bay scored two fourth down touchdowns in the second half as part of its rally and further, found a way to win without one of its defensive stars. Lineman Kelly Jackson went down with an ankle injury late in the first half, but it didn't mean he was out of the game.
"Our rally really started at halftime," said Menard. "Kelly hurt his ankle but he is one of the most inspirational players we have on this team. ... He gave a great halftime speech talking about how we never played at this level before and how tough for us it would be if we were to stop now."
"It took us a few plays to absorb it all in the third quarter, but then we kicked it into gear."
Bay trailed at the half, 7-3, courtesy of East quarterback Zach Damico's 34-yard TD run in the second quarter just after a mishandled pitch between Menard and Gray resulted in a Bay fumble.
Colin Downing's 38-yard field goal closed the gap to 7-3 just before the half, but momentum clearly stayed with East at the start of the second half, as senior receiver Kyle Wirtz returned the kickoff all the way to the Blue Dukes 44.
Seven players later, Damico hit Wirtz with a perfectly-set up pass in the flat that went 16 yards for a touchdown. East was up 14-3 with 8:19 left in the third.
"That was my mistake," said Blue Dukes coach Jim Tietjen. "I called a blitz when I shouldn't have."
But Bay started making amends almost immediately as it adopted the "All-Gray, all the time" attack.
Wolter called his name five times on a 55-yard drive that resulted in a missed field goal, but after the Bay defense came up with a stop, Wolter upped the ante' by giving the ball to Gray six times for 51 yards on a eight-play 56-yard drive.
Gray raced 20 yards to give Bay a first and goal at the East seven, but three plays later, the Blue Dukess found themselves with a fourth and goal on the East five.
That's when Menard took matters into his own hands. He rolled out right, evaded one East tackler after another and finally found junior back Turner DeMuth for a five-yard TD pass at the 10:10 mark of the fourth quarter.
The try for two failed, but the Blue Dukess had life at 14-9.
"Our quarterback made a great play," said Tietjen. "Give Menard enough time and he'll finish things."
The Bay defense, without Jackson in the line-up, then got only its second three and out of the night on the East offense.
The Blue Dukes offense returned the compliment and started feeling its oats, as Gray carried the ball seven times for 30 yards on the subsequent 10-play 57-yard march.
But again the Blue Dukess found themselves with a fourth and five, this time from the Spartan 18. It was then that Wolter reached deep into his bag of tricks. He had Menard roll out far to his right, taking the bulk of the Spartan defense with him.
And only at the very last second did Menard throw the ball deftly back into the flat on the left where a wide-open Gray was waiting for it. Gray gathered it in and cruised into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 3:53 left.
And when Gray pounded the two-point conversion in, Bay was ahead for the first time this evening at 17-14.
East was able to get one first down courtesy of a Bay pass interference penalty, but when a holding penalty wiped out a first down pass, the Spartans had to punt.
And Gray would make them pay for that mistake, as two plays later, he found nothing but wide open spaces in front of him for the 59-yard score that sent Bay into the state semifinals.
"We really did it for Kelly (Jackson) in the second half," Gray said. "He's the heart and soul of this team and we really put it on the field for him."
"Nothing really changed for us in the second half except for our conditioning. I think our offensive line (behind all-world tackle Quinten Dismukes) just wore them out, especially when we went to the hurry-up offense."
Something the Blue Dukess have been working on all season.
"We just believe," Tietjen said. "…And now this is the next step. Every week is the next step for us and next week it's appropriately either Watertown or Waunakee for the opportunity to make it to the ultimate goal: state."
Waunakee has won last three Division 2 titles
UP NEXT: It will be the "empire" Waunakee vs. the "underdog" Bay in the state semifinal at 2 p.m. Saturday at Wisconsin Lutheran College. The Warriors have won five state championships including the last three D2 crowns in a row by a combined score of 127-28 including a 45-0 rout of Waterford last year. Waterford knocked out Bay in the third round of the playoffs last season.
The Warriors have outscored their opposition 448-143 this season, averaging 40.7 points per game in the process. They put 76 points on Baraboo and their closest game was a 13-10 win over state D2 semifinalist Mt. Horeb/Barneveld in the regular season. Quarterback Will Decorah has passed for more than 1,800 yards this season with 11 TDs, but Waunakee lives on the ground with 47 rushing TDs to its credit as Tyler Reynolds has rushed for 1,451 yards on 215 carries with 22 TDs.
ANALYSIS: Bay Coach Jim Tietjen scouted the Warriors 55-27 Level 3 win over Watertown and came away impressed.
"They've won something like 42 games in a row," he said, "and what I liked about their program is that it seemed so small town USA. They're on the edge of Madison, but they just seem to have that kind of mentality. Everybody goes to watch the games and the fans seem to cross generations. The game is the real place to be on Friday nights.
"But that being said, I don't think we'll have to work too hard with our kids to get them mentally ready. They've beaten Brookfield East. They've beaten Homestead. We're not afraid of anyone. Our league might be better top-to-bottom than theirs and they're not playing in Waunakee or Madison. They're on the road. We'll see what happens."
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