BELMONT — In Belmont, and in the eyes of many prep football fans around Wisconsin, the 2020 Braves’ football team will always be known as a the 8-player state champions.
And, make no mistake about it, they deserved to be called champions.
However, their title will also be tagged with the term “unofficial” because, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the 2020 season was like none other in state history. So, whether it gets tagged with an asterisk or maybe an image of the COVID-19 cell, the Braves will have to live with being “unofficial” state champions.
Belmont and Gilman were the last two undefeated teams remaining in 8-player football when the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association postseason playoffs were schedule to begin.
In order to assure themselves the opportunity to settle things on the gridiron, the two teams opted out of the WIAA’s culminating event and choose to face off against one another in an unsanctioned and unofficial state championship game at the Woodside Sports Complex in Mauston on Friday, Nov. 13.
“We felt it was in the best interest of our team and program to make this decision” said Belmont head coach Brandon Wiese. “It certainly wasn’t easy because we would have rather this been sponsored by the WIAA, but in this case it made the most sense for the top two teams in the state to play. Our players and program have worked hard to be in this type of opportunity so we are looking forward to competing to be the best in the state against a very good Gilman program.”
The Braves came out on top, winning 24–20 thanks to a 21-yard touchdown run by All-State senior quarterback Riley Christensen with 24 seconds remaining, to finish off a perfect 7–0 season and the program’s first-ever state title, even if it is deemed unofficial.
“When we heard the WIAA wasn’t sponsoring a championship game, we got a little worried, but we knew coach was always going to do what’s best for us,” said senior lineman Mitch Douglas. “He figured out a way for us to play a championship game and we came out as champions.”
The question mark about whether or not to call Belmont the state champions stems from the fact that a few other 8-player teams around the state had pretty good teams in their own right until COVID concerns caused those schools to shut down their season prematurely.
Top-ranked Wausau Newman Catholic rolled to a 5–0 record following a 54–6 victory over Marion/Tigerton on Oct. 30, and the defending WIAA 8-player state runner-ups were scheduled to play Gilman in their season finale on Nov. 6. However, on Nov. 1, it was announced that the Cardinals’ season was coming to an end due to COVID quarantines on the team.
The Cardinals had outscored their five opponents this season by a 252–50 margin.
Auburndale, an 8-player newcomer, also missed out on a big portion of its season due to COVID after winning their first two games by a 108–48 margin.
Yes, COVID may have prematurely taken away the seasons of these two programs, but should it also take away the honor from #2-ranked Belmont, who endured their own shutdown during the season, but made it back to the field to finish their schedule unbeaten after defeating #3 and #4 ranked teams in the state?
Judging by the celebrations of the players following the game, the Braves didn’t let COVID win. They were celebrating like they had just won a state championship because in the eyes of many they did.
“It’s a great example of why kids need things to happen these days. They need sports,” said Wiese. “Even if there are limitations or changes, they need these things to happen. I’m just really happy for our school , for our kids and for our community that we were able to do this.”