WAUKESHA – Darlington wasn’t looking for revenge against St. Mary’s Springs in Friday’s WIAA Division 6 state semifinal showdown. What they were looking for was redemption and another opportunity to win a state title.
With their high-powered rushing attack grounded by the top-ranked Ledgers, the Redbirds went to the air and threw down the two-time defending Division 6 state champions, taking the lead for good on a 17-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Jared Meister to senior receiver Will Schwartz with 12 seconds remaining to pull out a thrilling 24-20 victory in an epic high school football playoff game played at Waukesha North High School on Friday, Nov. 11.
“It was an impressive game. I’ve been in this business for a lot of years and that game is for sure in my top two of memorable games. When you beat the defending state champs, it makes it that much more significant,” said Darlington head coach Scott Zywicki, whose Redbirds have lost to the Ledgers in each of the last two D6 state championship games. “The kids fought to the end. They knew we had a chance and, as long as they had a chance, they were going to fight until the end.”
The lead changed hands with every score as the #2-ranked Redbirds (13-0 overall) rallied from behind three times in the second half to top the #1-ranked Ledgers (12-1) in their fourth post-season meeting in four seasons. It was the first time all season the ‘Birds had trailed in a game, but they didn’t panic, answering back quickly each time to regain the lead.
“It’s quite an accomplishment for our kids to come out ahead. We executed our game plan so much better than we did against them last year. We went back and looked at last year’s film with them and showed them it wasn’t the scheme it was the execution. Our kids were able to execute as well on both sides of the ball when we needed to,” replied Zywicki, who led his team over Springs in Level 4 in 2013 en route to a runner-up finish in D6. “We have a great deal of respect for their program. They are outstanding every year. Bob Hyland does a great job coaching his kids. They are very tough to beat.”
Both the Redbirds and the Ledgers are used to putting up points in bunches, but neither team could break through and find the end zone against the other’s defense in the first half. A 26-yard field goal by foreign exchange kicker Alvaro Barrera with 1:36 remaining in the first quarter gave the ‘Birds an early 3-0 lead and they held that lead through the first half.
“Our kicking game was solid. Alvaro made what turned out to be a key field goal for us,” said Zywicki.
A long kickoff return to start the second half set the Ledgers up at the Redbirds’ 26-yard line, and Clay Schueffner ripped off a 25-yard TD run just over a minute into the quarter to put Springs ahead 6-3.
Darlington answered back two and a half minutes later with a 55-yard scoring strike from Meister to senior halfback Trevor Johnson put the Redbirds back on top 10-6.
The Ledgers regained the lead early in the fourth quarter following a lost fumble by senior halfback Hunter Johnson at the Redbirds 5. Fintan Floyd cashed in the turnover with a 4-yard TD run with 9:11 remaining to make it 13-10.
H. Johnson redeemed himself just 39 seconds later when he hooked up with his cousin Trevor on a 27-yard TD pass on a halfback option to put the ‘Birds back into the lead at 17-13 with 8:32 to play. It was the first TD pass of his career for Hunter, who has scored 108 TDs for the ‘Birds the past three seasons.
“Both teams had scoring opportunities that got away in the first half. There’s a lot of that in a tight game like this. Every play is magnified,” Zywicki said. “We knew we were in for a battle and we didn’t flinch. We kept going. That was the impressive thing for me.”
Springs grabbed the lead back with under three minutes remaining on an 8-yard run by Floyd, but they left a little too much time for Darlington’s high-powered offense to respond.
H. Johnson returned the ensuing kick off to the midfield, and the ‘Birds quickly drove down inside the red zone. With time ticking away, Meister found Schwartz open near the 5 and Schwartz raced into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 12 seconds remaining on the clock.
“We went back to what we do. The kids didn’t panic. I thought our line did an exceptional job knowing we had to throw the ball and that they were going to be coming after us. The line did a great job protecting and keeping Jared clean in the pocket. That’s not easy to do,” explained Zywicki.
“Jared just got off that last pass before he was drilled by a blitzing linebacker. He stood right in there and delivered a strike. Will latched on to it and ran it in. It was a good call by (offensive coordinator) Ryan McGranahan. We took advantage of the holes in the zone they were playing.”
The Ledgers tried one last Hail Mary as time ran down, but H. Johnson knocked down the pass to jumpstart a raucous Redbirds’ celebration.
“Just the elation of knowing you got there again was enough for the kids. It made it very sweet coming against Springs because you knew you had to play an excellent ball game to beat them. That’s what made it sweet, the knowledge that we’re going back (to Madison) and we beat one of the premier teams in the state to get there. We never talked about revenge,” commented Zywicki.
Meister, who was injured on defense in the first quarter of last year’s D6 title game, finished Friday’s contest with a season-high 187 yards after completing 8-of-15 passes with two scores and no interceptions. The Redbirds ended the night with 214 passing yards and 337 total yards.
“We didn’t need a passing game early in the year, and we actually didn’t even practice it a lot. In the last four weeks, we have worked on our passing game. The practice time we put into it has helped us hone our skills. Jared has been better reading the defenses and recognizing what to do with the ball. He’s delivering a great pass to our receivers,” Zywicki said.
The Ledgers did all they could to limit the Birds’ rushing attack, holding them to a season-low 123 yards on 38 carries. It was the first time all season the Redbirds were held without a rushing touchdown, and the first time this year they were outgained on the ground by an opponent. Springs ran 35 times for 139 yards, and finished the night with 208 total yards.
H. Johnson, who was recently announced as the 2016 Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Offensive Player of the Year for the state, led the Redbirds with 67 rushing yards on 19 carries, and he added three catches for 47 yards and completed one pass for 27 yards and a TD.
T. Johnson hauled in five catches for 150 yards and two scores, and he ran seven times for 26 yards.
Schueffner gained 63 yards on 11 carries, and Floyd tallied 56 yards on 17 carries to lead the Ledgers, who were held to 69 yards passing in the game.
Darlington advances to Camp Randall for the fourth year in a row seeking their first state title since 1995. Things don’t get any easier for the ‘Birds since they will be meeting an undefeated opponent for the third straight game in #3-ranked Eau Claire Regis (13-0). Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. in Madison on Thursday, Nov. 17.
“We wanted the opportunity to get a gold ball and we have it. For some reason, it just wasn’t meant to be the past three years. I, obviously, would love to have another gold ball, but we have to play another great game to do it. If we do what we’re capable of doing, we’ll have a heck of a chance to capture the gold ball,” said Zywicki.
The Ramblers pose quite a challenge with a quarterback, Paul Petit, who has thrown for 1,300 yards and 21 TDs, and a running back, Noel Ortiz, who has rushed for over 1,000 yards and 11 TDs. Their leading receiver, Samuel Forden, has caught 26 passes for over 600 yards and 10 TDs.
Regis has had 21 players rush the ball and nine have scored, and they have had 12 players catch a pass with eight scoring for them.
“They are an outstanding team in their own way. They’re not quite as big as us, but they have athletes everywhere. They are going to be very challenging for us. If they get to the corner or get behind us on offense, it’s going to be a touchdown,” Zywicki remarked. “We have to be able to pound the ball (on offense). Defensively, we’re going to try to limit their big plays and try to funnel them inside where we have our size advantage.”
Regis, who was the Cloverbelt champion this season, has five state final appearances since 2002 and last won a title in 2003 when they defeated Belmont, 42-0, for the D7 crown. The Ramblers average 39 points per game on offense and allow 16 ppg. on defense. They average 209 rushing yards and 106 passing yards per game, while giving up 121 rushing ypg. and 104 passing ypg.
Their last three playoff games have been decided by eight points or less, including a 22-14 victory over previously unbeaten Abbotsford last Friday to advance to state for the first time since 2012. The Ramblers defeated Unity, 50-14, Chetek-Weyerhaeuser, 35-29, and Grantsburg, 21-20, in the playoffs.
“This group has found a way each and every week. We’ve been a little bit lucky and the ball has bounced our way. We realize the task in front of us is going to be pretty tall,” said Regis head coach Bryant Brenner.
WIAA DIVISION 6 LEVEL 4
St. Mary’s Springs…. 0 0 6 14 – 21
Darlington…………… 3 0 7 14 – 24
D – Alvaro Barrera, FG 26
SMS – Scheffner, 25 run (kick blocked)
D – Trevor Johnson, 65 pass from Jared Meister (Barrera kick)
SMS – Floyd, 4 run (Ottery kick)
D – T. Johnson, 27 pass from Hunter Johnson (Barrera kick)
SMS – Floyd, 8 run (Ottery kick)
D – Will Schwartz, 17 pass from Meister (Barrera kick)
Team Stats: First Downs– SMS 9; D 9. Rushing– SMS 35-139; D 36-123. Passing– SMS 7-16-0, 69; D 9-16-0, 214. Fumbles-Lost– SMS 3-2; D 3-2. Penalties– SMS 1-15; D 4-25.
Darlington Leaders: Rushing (Att-Yds-Td)– Hunter Johnson, 19-67-0; Trevor Johnson, 7-26-0; Tyler Mosley, 7-23-0. Passing (Comp-Att-Int-Td-Yds)– Jared Meister, 8-15-0-2, 187; H. Johnson, 1-1-0-1, 27. Receiving (Cat-Yds-Td)– T. Johnson, 5-150-2; H. Johnson, 3-36-0; Will Schwartz, 1-17-1.