DARLINGTON – And then there was one.
Darlington remains the last unbeaten team in the Southwest Wisconsin Activities League after knocking off #6-ranked Cuba City, 15-7, on Homecoming Day at Martens Field on Friday, Sept. 30.
The two teams came into the game locked in a tie atop the SWAL standings, but the Redbirds would be the team to remain on top after holding off a late push by the Cubans to extend their conference winning streak to 16 games.
Incidentally, Darlington’s last league loss came on Homecoming Day 2009 to these same Cubans, who also beat the ‘Birds on Homecoming in 2007.
However, this time around the Redbirds weren’t about to let the Cubans spoil their celebration.
Darlington (5-2 overall, 5-0 in SWAL) got the festivities started early, driving 45-yards on nine plays to become the first team to score on the Cubans (6-1, 4-1) in the first half of a game this season.
A 23-yard hook-and-ladder play from Storm Wiegel to Mitchell Whalen got the ‘Birds moving, and senior fullback Seth Rowe capped the drive with a 1-yard blast into the end zone. Whalen tacked on the two-point conversion on a gutsy run to put the hosts ahead 8-0 with 49 seconds to play in the opening quarter.
The Redbirds struck again early in the second quarter thanks to a Cuban fumble deep in their own territory. Two plays after sophomore A.J. Brandt jumped on the loose ball at the CC 12-yard line, Whalen shimmied across the goal line to extend the lead to 15-0 with 8:01 to play in the first half.
The Cubans mounted a scoring threat late in the half, but an interception by Levi Wedig at the Darlington 6 with under 30 seconds remaining preserved the first-half shutout.
With both teams stuffing the others high-powered rushing attack for much of the day, the Cubans and the Redbirds each had to go to the air to move the ball down the field.
Both teams had some success in the passing game, but neither team put points up through the air until Cuba’s Kyle Fredrick connected with tight end Jeff Meckstroth on a 31-yard scoring strike with 3:24 remaining in regulation. Gregory Ganter’s extra point kick trimmed the gap to 15-7.
The Cubans kept the momentum in their favor when Dillon Hoffman recovered an onside kick at the CC 48.
Seven plays later, facing a fourth-and-15 inside the Darlington 19, Frederick hooked up with Jacob Timmerman through the air, but Timmerman was stop a few inches shy of the first down by a trio of Redbird tacklers to allow the ‘Birds to hang on for the win.
“Our kids have prepared well and gotten better and better as the year has gone on,” said Darlington head coach Scott Zywicki. “They continue to grow and get more comfortable in their roles.”
The Cubans held a slight edge on the Redbirds on the ground, 116-101, and through the air, 163-117, but they hurt themselves with three turnovers.
“Because we were aggressive, we were able to get them out of their comfort zone,” added Zywicki.
Whalen led the ‘Birds with 39 yards on nine carries with a TD, while Zach McArthur went 11-for-23 passing for 117 yards. Brandon Hardyman hauled in four catches for 76 yards.
Alex Murphy led the Cubans ground attack with 51 yards on 11 carries, while Frederick went 12-of-27 for 163 yards with Meckstroth making six catches for 94 yards and a score for the guests.
Hardyman led the defense with 10 tackles. Tyler Black chipped in with nine tackles and Eli Humphrey added seven stops, while Rowe recorded six stops and recovered a fumble for the ‘Birds.
The victory puts the Redbirds squarely in the driver’s seat heading towards their third consecutive SWAL title with just two weeks remaining in the regular season.
“If we take care of our business, we don’t have to worry about anybody else helping us. Now we are in charge of our own destiny,” Zywicki explained. “I told them to enjoy the (homecoming) weekend, then its back to business. We have to make sure we come ready to practice next week.”
Darlington travels to Hazel Green to face Southwestern (4-3, 3-2) on Friday, Oct. 7. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Cuba City…. 6 0 8 0 - 14
Darlington… 26 8 13 0 - 47
D – Seth Rowe, 13 run (run failed)
D – Mitchell Whalen, 67 run (Zach McArthur kick)
CC – Whalen, 64 pass from McArthur (McArthur kick)
Team Stats: First Downs- CC 7; D 10. Rushing- CC 51-104; D 34-143. Passing- CC 1-3-0, 8; D 4-10-1, 129. Fumbles-Lost- CC 4; D 1. Penalties- CC 9-66, D 5-30.
Darlington Leaders: Rushing (Att-Yds-Td)- Mitchell Whalen, 8-164-2; Tyler Black 8-121-0, Seth Rowe 21-84-3. Passing (Comp-Att-Int-Td-Yds)- Zach McArthur, 3-3-0-2, 84. Receiving (Cat-Yds-Td)- Whalen 1-64-1; Brandon Hardyman, 2-20-1.