MADISON – Injuries are an unfortunate part of a football game. They definitely played a huge role in the outcome of Darlington’s state championship game.
The Redbirds lost three two-way starters during the game, including 3/4ths of their high-powered backfield, and their losses were felt as Saint Mary’s Springs scored 19 unanswered points over the final 13 minutes of the game to down Darlington, 39-20, in the 2015 WIAA Division 6 state championship game held at Camp Randall Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 19.
“It’s tough. We were in this game for awhile. We would have given them a better game (without the injuries), but (Springs) certainly deserve the gold ball because they were the better team throughout the day, even when those guys were in there,” said Darlington head coach Scott Zywicki.
It is the third year in a row the Redbirds (13-1 overall) have finished as the D6 runner-up and the second straight season they have fallen to the Ledgers (12-2) in the finale.
Darlington’s all-state running back Hunter Johnson scored his third touchdown of the game– and his team record 44th TD of the season– on a 6-yard run with 1:32 remaining in the third quarter to pull the Redbirds even with the Ledgers at 20-20, but the junior injured his leg when he landed in the end zone after leaping to avoid a tackler at the goal line and he would not be able to return to the game.
“I was pretty excited until I felt pain go up my leg,” admitted H. Johnson. “We had a lot of momentum going for us right there. It just didn’t work out. It’s nice to get here, but we’re sick of losing. Next year the goal is to finish with a gold ball. We don’t want to go four years in a row and not get one.”
Without H. Johnson guarding the perimeter on defense, the Redbirds were gashed time and time again by the Ledgers, who used three quick scoring drives in succession to turn a tie game into a bit of a blowout.
And, without their 2,000-yard rusher in the backfield on offense, the ‘Birds had little they could do to answer the Springs’ scores.
“It doesn’t take a genius to realize that when (Hunter) went down, he took a huge part of our offense with him. We have special plays just for him. And, Hunter didn’t just affect us on offense. He also affected us on defense. They started to attack the perimeter when he left the game. When he goes out, you end up with kids who will give you all they have, but they just don’t have the physical skills that he has. We paid the price with some kids out of position,” Zywicki commented.
The Redbirds also lost junior quarterback/linebacker Jared Meister to an injury late in the first quarter, and they were without another 1,000-yard running back when junior Trevor Johnson left the game with another injury in the fourth quarter.
“We don’t want to blame it on injuries. They are one heck of a ball club. I think they were even stronger than they were last year. They commanded the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” stated Zywicki.
Sophomore fullback Clay Schueffner ripped off a 56-yard TD run just 40 seconds after H. Johnson’s score to put the Ledgers back on top 26-20.
The ‘Birds went three-and-out on their next series to give the Ledgers the ball right back, and they marched 71 yards in five plays and a minute, 22 seconds to add to their lead with a 14-yard Fintan Floyd TD run. Floyd, a junior, added the two-point conversion to make it 32-20 with 9:47 remaining.
The Redbirds turned the ball over on downs at the Springs’ 44-yard line with 7:15 to play, and Schueffner needed just 11 seconds to get the Ledgers back into the end zone as he ripped off another 56-yard scoring jaunt to make it 39-20.
Schueffner finished the game with 233 yards on 15 carries with a pair of scores and Floyd added 184 yards on 28 carries with three TDs as the Ledgers ran for a season-high 430 yards against the vaunted Redbirds’ rush defense.
Springs, who did not complete a pass in the game, ran for 203 of their 430 yards after H. Johnson left the game with Schueffner gaining 189 of his 233 yards on his final five carries.
“As good as our run defense has played all year, and even some in the first half, that third and fourth quarter was very disappointing,” said Zywicki. “Once they got to the perimeter, we didn’t get off our blocks. We didn’t read it the way I anticipated we would. It came down to brute force in the trenches and we just couldn’t match-up physically with them.”
Quarterback Blake Bauer put Springs up 7-0 on a 1-yard sneak with 1:10 remaining in the first quarter, and Floyd punched in a 1-yard score of his own with 7:06 to play in the second quarter to make it 14-0.
H. Johnson grabbed some of the momentum back for the Redbirds following Floyd’s TD run by returning the ensuing kickoff 86 yards to the house to slice the deficit in half.
Darlington went into the half down 14-7. It was the first time this season the ‘Birds had trailed at the intermission.
“We started off a little slow, but we came back. Unfortunately, they came back, too. Every time we scored they came back with one. You got to stop them and we couldn’t do that today,” said senior all-state lineman Taylor Evenstad. “It was pretty awesome playing here. We’re getting pretty familiar with each other. Hopefully, we get to meet up with them again next year.”
The Redbirds came out in the third quarter and put together a six-play, 67-yard drive to get back on the scoreboard. H. Johnson capped the trek with a 17-yard TD run with 9:27 to play in the third quarter to trim the gap to 14-13. The extra point kick was no good, keeping the deficit at one.
“It all starts and ends with our line,” said Zywicki.
Springs regained the lead on their very next drive with Floyd scoring on a 15-yard scoring jaunt. The Ledgers missed the PAT to keep the lead at seven.
A fumble recovery by junior linebacker Jesse Sturtz set the Redbirds up at the Springs’ 12 with 2:12 to play in the third quarter; and, just two plays later, H. Johnson leaped into the end zone to pull the Redbirds back within a point. Chad Golackson evene things at 20-20 by hitting the PAT.
The score came at a huge cost as H. Johnson was injured on the play, and the Ledgers took advantage with three consecutive scoring drives to pull away for their second straight state title and their sixth overall WIAA title.
“It was a great season. It was great to come here. Only two teams get here in the division, but it’s hard when you keep getting the silver ball,” said senior Conrad Blosch, the third of the Redbirds’ three 1,000-yard running backs. “It’s a hard loss. We hadn’t lost yet, so we weren’t used to that this season. The injuries, it was one, then two, then three...it just was not good. We wish we would’ve brought home the gold.”
H. Johnson ran 20 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns to run his school-record total to 2,365 yards. He also extended his single-season scoring record to 270 points with his three TDs, and he broke the school’s career scoring record during the game after running his career mark to 400 points to top the 387-point standard Jason Singer set just last season.
Blosch added 32 yards on nine carries to finish the year with 1,083 yards. T. Johnson closed the year with 1,120 yards.
Darlington managed a season-low 116 rushing yards and 169 total yards in Thursday’s game, and they were held to a season-low 20 points.
Back-up quarterback Ryan Glendenning led the passing attack, completing 3-of-9 passes for 47 yards.
Defensively, junior Hayden Hardyman recorded nine tackles with one TFL. Sturtz had seven tackles with a fumble recovery and Golackson added five stops. Meister and Blosch each recovered a fumble as well for the ‘Birds, who finished the season tied for the school record with 13 victories.
“I knew we’d win a lot of games (this year), but I didn’t expect this. This was totally out of the blue. This run (to state) that these kids gave us, what a great ride,” stated Zywicki.
Playing in their final prep football game at Darlington were seniors Tyler Osterday, Mikey Morrone, Conrad Blosch, Tyler Komprood, Colton Long, Taylor Evenstad and Gunnar Rielly.
“They have been so much fun to coach. They worked their tails off for me. They gave me everything they had, especially today,” Zywicki said about his seniors.
And, with just two starters to replace on each side of the ball, a four straight trip to Camp Randall could be in the cards for the Redbirds next fall, but until then their coach knows they have some work to do.
“These kids have proven that they have what it takes. Hopefully they’ll do the work in the off-season and come back hungrier next year,” noted Zywicki. “But, if we don’t get stronger, even if we make it back here, the outcome will be the same.”
WIAA DIVISION 6 STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
St. Mary’s Springs… 7 7 12 13 – 39
Darlington………….. 0 7 13 0 – 20
S – Bauer, 1 run (Ottery kick)
S – Floyd, 1 run (Ottery kick)
D – Hunter Johnson, 86 kickoff return (Chad Golackson kick)
D – H. Johnson, 17 run (kick failed)
S – Floyd, 15 run (kick failed)
D – H. Johnson, 6 run (Golackson kick)
S – Schueffner, 56 run (kick blocked)
S – Floyd, 14 run (run failed)
S – Schueffner, 56 run (Ottery kick)
Team Stats: First Downs– S 17; D 22. Rushing– S 50-430; D 45-116. Passing– S 0-3-0, 0; D 4-11-0, 53. Fumbles-Lost– S 4-4; D 4-2. Penalties– S 5-35, D 3-20.
Darlington leaders: Rushing (Att-Yds-Td)– Hunter Johnson, 20-119-3; Conrad Blosch, 9-32-0. Passing (Comp-Att-Int-Td-Yds)– Ryan Glendenning, 3-9-0-0, 47; Jared Meister, 1-2-0-0, 6. Receiving (Cat-Yds-Td)– Brayden McDonald, 1-32-0.