Whitefish Bay - There are large, enormously large photos of historic Whitefish Bay football teams of the past that grace the high walls of the Blue Dukes locker room.
And one can almost tell in the stern, impressive visages glancing down at the new crop of Blue Dukes players that they know they have to make room for another, newer photo.
This year's team could take every last memory of this best-ever 10-2 North Shore Conference championship, WIAA Division 2 state semifinal season, put them in a glass case and place them in a public area where everyone can see what an example this year's group set.
"It was obviously very tough not to make it to that very last game (a WIAA state D2 title game with eventual champion and archrival Homestead)," said all-state defensive back and now two-time NOW All-Suburban choice Jackson Weber. "It would have been great to have played Homestead again (which the Blue Dukes had beaten 14-7 in the regular season).
"But we've made such big strides these last few years, to go so deep into the playoffs for two years in a row. The third round and then the fourth round. We've laid a huge building block for this program."
Especially in the team's never-say-die attitude.
Never out of a game
"We always wanted to keep going, keep our heads up," said two-time NOW All-Suburban running back Rashadeem Gray. "Coach (Jim Tietjen) makes us keep our helmets on all game long (because) it signifies that we're not done in any game, ever."
In fact, this senior-dominated Blue Dukes team kept its traditions right until the end, as the day after the epic 35-28 overtime loss to eventual state runner-up Waunakee, they gathered together just as they always did, to look at the game film.
"It was just something the kids wanted to do," Tietjen said.
And in his long tenure, Tietjen has transformed the Blue Dukes from a "try-hard" edge of the playoffs, pull an occasional upset type of team, to a real contender, a crew that lived up to the term "Duke Pride."
"Each week we met another one of our goals," Tietjen said. "We managed to get a little better. We became a good football team and that's why we have all those wins.
"Each win added something along the way. We were able to do a lot of things at the end of the year that we weren't able to do at the start of the season. It got us closer and closer to the 'promised land.'
"It would have been great to go out on top, but our kids already knew that they could play."
That was validated by the first conference title since 1993 that was earned with the epic win over Homestead in the seventh game of the regular season. It was the first victory over Homestead since 2000.
The Blue Dukes then really earned their place on the wall when they went to unbeaten Brookfield East on a cold, early November night and defeated the Spartans after falling behind 14-3 in the third quarter.
The victory earned the Blue Dukes their first-ever berth in the WIAA state semifinals, which they lost in astounding fashion to Waunakee, which tied a state record with its 48th straight win. The Warriors would go on to lose to Homestead in the state D2 finals a week later.
The drive to get that far started early, Weber said. The Blue Dukes lost their conference opener, 14-13, to Germantown, putting their hopes for a North Shore title and more in jeopardy.
"It actually started right at the end of last season (when the Blue Dukes had advanced to the third round of the playoffs for the first time)," Weber said. "It got the guys excited and focused and pointed in the right direction.
"And then when we lost to Germantown. The guys were disappointed. We wanted an undefeated regular season, but we knew that if we won out, we could still control our destiny. Everyone just took it up a notch."
A smashing win over Cedarburg followed and the Blue Dukes just rolled through the rest of the regular season.
"And that Homestead win showed we could break through a barrier and gave us motivation for the future," Weber said.
Both Gray and Weber wanted to keep going with this season because the feeling was so good on the team. They both talked about playing with their best friends. Gray referred to them as "my brothers."
"And then we'd get together and bond on the weekends," he said. "It's like when I run, I have 10 other guys helping me, blocking for me. I know there are 11 other guys on the other team (trying to stop me), but I'm not afraid."
"We're all best friends, we do it for each other," Weber said.
Gray's year, one that included 1,683 yards on 189 carries (8.9 per carry) and 24 touchdowns is second in Bay history only to Booker Stanley's 1,837 yard and 29 TD campaign of 2001.
Menard, Jackson lead squads
Both pointed to the efforts of defensive lineman Kelly Jackson and quarterback Grant Menard.
Jackson was the emotional and physical leader of the defense and when he was knocked out of the East game just before halftime with an ankle injury, his emotional speech fired up the Blue Dukes and helped fuel the rally.
Meanwhile, Menard developed into one of the elite signal-callers in the area as he came up with one big play after another especially in the playoff games against East and Waunakee. In the latter game, he played the last five minutes of regulation and overtime with an injured ankle. He led Bay to two late TDs to force the overtime session before the Blue Dukes fell.
"From last year to this one," said Weber, who was also a tight end on offense, "you could see how much better he (Menard) got. It was a real tribute to his effort. He was so great at keeping plays alive."
Jackson and Menard were just two more Bay seniors who wanted to keep this season going as far as it could.
"Yes, this was something special," Gray said. "We went deep. Not as deep as we would (have) liked, but we made history. I think our class will be remembered."
AT A GLANCE
Whitefish Bay Blue Dukes say goodbye to talented class.
SENIORS:The Blue Dukes junior varsity won the North Shore title but this particular senior class will be missed. They include the following: Julian Posey, Jackson Weber, Jeremiah Holt, Ian Buchanan, Darrein Walker, Rashadeem Gray, Grant Menard, Jacob Pandl, Jordan Johnson, Dan Pettay, John Park, Michael Loyda, Graydon Peterson, Jacob Carlson, Bobby Linneman, Joseph Bell, Kelly Jackson, Will Shanley, Quinten Dismukes and Luke Schedler.
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