MCDONALD'S SWNEWS4U.COM GAME OF THE WEEK (Nov. 11–18)
8-PLAYER FOOTBALL STATE CHAMPIONSHIP: #2 Belmont 24, #3 Gilman 20
MAUSTON — With 95 yards standing between Belmont and an undefeated season, senior quarterback Riley Christensen put the Braves on his back or more appropriately his legs to orchestrate a miraculous game-winning drive.
Christensen accounted for 88 of the 95 yards during a wild 13-play march, covering the final 21 on a mad scramble with 24 seconds remaining to thrust the #2-ranked Braves ahead of the #3-ranked Gilman Pirates 24–20.
Then, with the lead in their pocket, Belmont (7–0) sealed the victory on the final play of the game when junior Waylon Palzkill made a leaping interception at the Braves’ 7-yard line to finish off the Pirates (7–1) and an undefeated season in the unofficial 8-player football state championship game at the Woodside Sports Complex in Mauston Friday night.
“It just shows their hearts” said Belmont head coach Brandon Wiese after receiving a ice-cold Gatorade bath on a chilly night. “We talk about earning it all the time and they just went flat out and earned it tonight. I couldn’t be more proud of all of them. At that moment, we didn’t look at anything beyond our experience and we trusted our experience.
“It feels great. I don’t even have words for this. I’m just excited for our guys and for our program.”
The title will forever be “unofficial” since the game was not sanctioned by the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association after the two remaining undefeated 8-player teams pulled out of the WIAA’s culminating event in order to guarantee that they would meet in a season finale clash.
However, with the way both teams played until the final horn, the winner deserves the right to be called champion.
“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 Braves found themselves behind for the first time all season after the Pirates used two third-quarter touchdown runs by senior running back Brayden Boie (29 yards) and junior quarterback Julian Krizan (8 yards) to erase a 12–6 halftime deficit and grab their first lead of the night at 20–12.
Christensen brought Belmont back within two on his third TD run of the night, a 4-yard blast with 7:33 to play that made it 20–18. However, the Braves were unsuccessful on their two-point attempt to remain trailing by two with time running out.
The Braves’ defense stepped up and forced the Pirates to punt away its next possession. Boie’s kick was downed by the Pirates at the Belmont 5-yard line, leaving the Braves 95 yards away from the end zone with 4:13 remaining on the clock. It turned out that was just enough time for Christensen to carry the Braves to victory.
“In the huddle, I said we got to be calm,” said Christensen. “We’ve been in this situation before. If we stay calm, cool and collected we’ll finish it. We knew we could do it. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Nine straight runs to open the drive — eight by Christensen including an 11-yard gain on a 4th-and-4 play — moved the Braves from their own 5 to the Gilman 47 with less than two minutes to play.
Following an incompletion on their only pass attempt of the drive, Christensen kept the ball on the ground gaining 18 yards on another key fourth-down run to put the Braves at the Pirates’ 21 with 32 ticks remaining.
“[Riley’s] been our go-to leader for us on both sides of the ball,” said Wiese. “He did everything he could to lead us here tonight. We knew in that moment we would go with our experience and he stepped up in a big way for us. Our offensive line fought hard and moved them off the ball.”
Belmont took its final timeout there to discuss what to do next. On first down, Christensen dropped back to pass but was flushed out of the pocket by the Pirates’ rush. He stepped up and found an opening, made his way the corner and sprinted down the Belmont sideline into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
Christensen ran 11 times for 88 yards during the game-clinching drive.
“Our coaches tell us every week that the O-line and D-line control the game,” said Mitch Douglas. “It’s up to the line to set the tone of the game, and I think we did that tonight. We have one heck of a back coming behind us. Riley can make anything happen when he gets going.”
The Braves were unsuccessful on their conversion attempt once again to keep the lead precariously at four with 24 seconds to play.
Gilman started its ensuing drive at their own 45 and moved through the air down to the Belmont 40. With time running out, Krizan launched a desperation bomb down field but Palzkill made a spectacular leaping interception at the Belmont 7 to end the threat and kick off a raucous Braves’ celebration.
“This is awesome,” said senior lineman Michael Douglas. “I knew we were going to pull this off. It was just a matter of putting our heads down and getting to work. We had to know the situation. We work on those scenarios all week in practice. We stuck to the game plan and we made it work.”
Belmont took an early 6–0 by taking the opening kick and marching right down the field. Christensen ripped off a 30-yard scoring jaunt to cap the six-play, 65-yard trek that took just a 1:11 off the clock.
The teams traded turnovers and punts for the rest of the first half until Belmont put together a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive to go ahead 12–0 with 28 seconds to go in the half. Christensen bulled in from seven yards out to close out the drive.
Bryson Keepers returned the ensuing kickoff to the Braves’ 42 to give the Pirates a spark. Two pass completions, a facemask penalty and a questionable pass interference penalty in the end zone gave Gilman a final untimed down from the Belmont 2.
The Pirates took advantage with Krizan firing a strike to sophomore Branden Ustianowski right at the goal line to get their team on the scoreboard and give them momentum heading into the intermission.
“[Gilman] got a little momentum going there,” said Weise. “We told the guys we expected this to be a four-quarter game and that’s what we got. Our guys stepped up and played their hearts out all four quarters to get it done.”
The Pirates continued to ride that momentum by opening the third quarter with back-to-back scoring drives to jump into a 20–12 lead. Those were the first points Belmont had allowed in the third quarter all season.
“[Gilman] was by far the best team we faced this year by a long shot,” added Mitch Douglas. “We knew things weren’t going to always go our way, but we had to make positives out of whatever happened during the game. Whatever came up, we knew we’d make it through.”
The Braves came back with 12 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to rally from behind for the victory.
“I can’t even put into words how happy I am right now,” said Mitch Douglas. “We started off our careers with few wins and we come out of here tonight with an undefeated season as seniors. That’s because of the all the hard work we’ve put in to get here. Our team has grown so much throughout the year. We keep playing all game. We don’t give up. That is what our team does. We make play after play no matter what happens throughout the game.”
Belmont finished the night with a season-high 393 rushing yards on 55 carries with Christensen rolling up a career-high 347 yards on 43 rushes.
“I love this team,” said Christensen. “It feels great to have all the hard work we put in over thousands and thousands of hours pay off.”
Christensen also went 6-of-9 through the air for 36 yards as the Braves topped 400 total yards for a game for the fourth time this season.
Christensen ends the season with 1,372 rushing yards and 27 rushing TDs, and he completed 35-of-62 passes for 478 yards with nine TDs and no interceptions. He closes his career rushing for more than 3,800 yards with 62 TDs, passing for more than 1,300 yards with 20 TDs and more than 400 yards receiving with five TDs.
Waylon Palzkill chipped in with 66 total yards rushing seven times for 29 yards and catching five passes 37 yards.
Gilman passed for a season-high 194 yards against the Braves’ D and added 127 rushing yards on 32 carries. Krizan went 15-of-22 passing for 194 yards with a TD and an interception, and he ran 14 times for 53 yards and a score to lead the Pirates, who last met the Braves in a WIAA Division 7 state semifinal match-up in 2003 with Belmont winning 21–12 to advance to the state finals for the first time in school history.
Boie added 47 yards and a TD on eight carries.
Defensively, Mitch Douglas tallied 14 tackles with six solo stops and a fumble recovery to lead the Braves. Christensen also contributed 14 tackles (five solo), while Michael Douglas, senior Will Cutler and sophomore Casin Carey registered seven tackles apiece for Belmont.
Friday’s game marked the final prep appearance on the gridiron for Braves’ seniors Danny Powell, Will Cutler, Riley Christensen, Mitch Douglas, Michael Douglas and Logan Kramer.
“They have been fighters since our years of not winning many ball games to transiting halfway through their high school careers to eight-man. They trusted the process and trusted each other. They saw it all the way through. These guys have done an awesome job,” Wiese said about his senior class
8-Player State Championship
Belmont 24, Gilman 20
(from Friday, Nov. 13 @ Woodside Sports Complex, Mauston)
Gilman 0 6 14 0 — 20
Belmont 6 6 0 12 — 24
B: Riley Christensen 30 run (pass failed), 10:49
B: Riley Christensen 7 run (pass failed), 0:28
G: Braden Ustianowski 2 pass from Julian Krizan (pass failed), 0:00
G: Brayden Boie 29 run (pass failed), 10:11
G: Krizan 8 run (Bryson Keepers pass from Krizan), 0:43
B: Christensen 4 run (pass failed), 7:33
B: Christensen 21 run (pass failed), 0:24
First downs — G 8, B 21. Rushing — G 32-127, B 55-393 . Passing (comp-att-int, yds) — G 15-22-1, 194; B 6-10-1, 36. Fumbles–lost — G 1-1, B 1-2. Penalties-yards — G 5-45, B 9-85.
Rushing — G: Julian Krizan 14-53, Brayden Boie 8-47, Kade Kroeplin 10-27; B: Riley Christensen 43-347, Waylon Palzkill 7-29, Konnor Lancaster 1-17, Will Cutler 2-1, John Burbach 2-(-1). Passing (comp-att-int, yards) — G: Krizan 15-22-1, 194; B: Christensen 6-9-0, 36, Waylon Palzkill 0-0-1, 0. Receiving — G: Kroeplin 4-84, Bryson Keepers 5-48, Boie 3-38, Brandon Ustianowski 3-24; B: W. Palzkill 5-37. Tackles — G: Keepers 15, Kroeplin 14, Boie 11; B: Mitch Douglas 14, Riley Christensen 14, Will Culter 7, Michael Douglas 7, Casin Carey 7, Ty Palzkill 6.