MADISON– Regis head coach Bryant Brenner compared stopping Darlington’s offense to climbing Mount Everest. His Ramblers not only reached the top of the mountain, they leveled it once they got there.
The #3-ranked Ramblers (14-0 overall) dominated the #2-ranked Redbirds (13-1) through three quarters, and then held off a furious four-quarter comeback bid to claim the WIAA Division 6 state football championship title at Camp Randall Stadium on Thursday, Nov. 17.
“The first half was just a nightmare. Anything that could or would go wrong did. I don’t know what it was. I just can’t explain it,” said Darlington head coach Scott Zywicki after leading his Redbirds to their fourth straight runner-up finish in D6. “If we played (early) like we did at the end with that passion, we would have been fine. But, there are no do-overs.”
It was the fourth season in a row the ‘Birds brought home a silver trophy from Madison, and the eighth time in 12 state finals appearances the ‘Birds have finished in second-place.
“I don’t know if it’s karma or what you call it, but the past four years have been disappointing once we got here. Coming here four times and leaving here the same way each time is disappointing. We know what we are capable of, but we never did it any time we’ve come here. I’m still very proud of our team for making in back here,” said senior running back Hunter Johnson.
Darlington has made a habit of starting fast and putting away their opponents early, but Regis turned the tables by scoring on their first four possessions to open up a 20-0 halftime lead.
Kicker Jack Nicolai capped a seven-play, 50-yard opening drive with a 27-yard field goal to put the Ramblers ahead 3-0. It was the first time since week three against Lake Mills that a team has scored on the Darlington defense, and the first time in the last seven games they had allowed a first-half point.
The Redbirds turned the ball over on downs at their own 39-yard line following an ill-advised, audibled fake punt on their opening possession, and Regis made them pay by covering the 39 yards in nine plays to go up 10-0. Caleb Brickner’s 6-yard TD run with 4:27 to play in the first quarter put the ‘Birds in their biggest hole of the season.
Coming into the game the ‘Birds had allowed just six first quarter points and had outscored their opponents 300-6 in the first quarter and 507-25 in the first half through their first 13 games.
“To their credit, they dominated us early and they took advantage of our mistakes. In a venue like this, you just can’t do what we did early in the game. We had mental mistakes, missed tackles and missed blocks,” admitted Zywicki, whose team lost a fumble on a kickoff and tossed two interceptions in the first half.
The Ramblers added a 2-yard TD run by 1,000-yard rusher Noel Ortiz midway through the second quarter and a 21-yard FG by Nicholai with 1:29 remaining in the half to extend their lead to 20-0 against a stunned Darlington squad.
Darlington didn’t pick up a first down until midway through the second quarter, and they finished the first half being outgained 210-49 in total yards. Regis held the ball on offense for 18:39 in the first half, while the ‘Birds held it for just 5:21 of the half.
“We just talked at halftime. There was no yelling. It was about finishing what we started and playing Darlington football like we are capable of to show people that we are a good team,” Zywicki explained. “We started to play better defensively, and then we started to move the ball and make better decisions on offense.”
Regis went to the air for their lone score of the second half. Quarterback Paul Petit connected with Samuel Forden for a 55-yard TD strike with 2:01 to play in the third quarter to extend the Ramblers’ lead to 27-0.
After trading interceptions with Regis on back-to-back possessions, the Redbirds’ offense finally started to get going.
Following senior Will Schwartz’s interception in Regis territory, H. Johnson leaped over a horde of Regis tacklers at the goal line for a 2-yard TD run at the 6:19 mark of the fourth quarter to cap a five-play, 37-yard drive and help the ‘Birds avoid their first shutout since the 2013 state championship game.
“We weren’t going to quit until the clock hit zeroes. I’m extremely proud of the guys for that,” replied H. Johnson
The Ramblers recovered an onside kick attempt, but were stopped on downs at the Redbird 35 with 2:13 to play. Senior quarterback Jared Meister led the ‘Birds down field with completions of 13 yards to Ryan Glendenning and 16 yards to Schwartz before hooking up with Glendenning again on a 36-yard TD reception with 1:49 to go. Alvaro Barrera’s second extra point kick cut the deficit to 27-14.
“The way we fought back was pretty cool,” said Glendenning. “We just realized this is the last game for most of our careers and we had to do something. We’ve all know each other since kindergarten, so it was awesome experience to go through with my friends. We realized as a class we had a chance to do something special. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come up with a gold ball.”
Darlington’s comeback hopes were buoyed on the ensuing kick when Glendenning recovered an onside attempt at the Redbird 49. Meister got the ‘Birds down to the Regis 11 on a completion to H. Johnson and two completions to Glendenning; but, after a pair of sacks moved the ‘Birds back to the 26, an incomplete pass on fourth down turned the ball over to the Ramblers with just nine seconds remaining.
“We ran out of time which is what it amounted to. Our kids never quit. They fought until the very end. That’s what I asked them to do,” Zywicki noted.
The Redbirds were held to a season-low 110 rushing yards, 249 total yards and 14 points by the Ramblers, who also gained a season-high 379 total yards and scored a season-high 27 points against the Darlington D.
It was the first time this season the ‘Birds lost the turnover battle (minus-3) after losing a fumble and throwing four interceptions.
H. Johnson, a preferred walk-on recruit heading to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, rushed 17 times for 95 yards with a TD and caught two passes for 28 yards to lead the Redbirds in Thursday’s state game.
H. Johnson, who was named the 2016 WFCA Offensive Player of the Year and the Wissports.com Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch for outstanding senior running back in Wisconsin, closes the season with 2,164 rushing yards and a school-record 272 points scored, which ranks 10th all-time in the state for points scored in a season. He also ended up tied for fourth all-time in state history with 45 total TDs in a season, and tied the state record of Kenosha Saint Joseph’s Adrian Davis with his 41st rushing TD of the season.
For his career, H. Johnson finishes 12th all-time in state history with 5,595 rushing yards, and he finishes second all-time in scoring (672), touchdowns (109) and rushing touchdowns (96). He has gained over 7,000 all-purpose yards for his career, which places him among the state’s all-time leaders in that statistic.
“He’s an awesome athlete and a classy kid. He’s worked extremely hard to become the player he is. He’s had a phenomenal high school career and has earned all those awards,” said Zywicki. “He has all the talent in the world. I hope he continues to develop it. He’s certainly going to make our community proud in his future here at UW. He means the world to us. He’s going to be sorely missed.”
Meister completed 8-of-24 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown, while getting picked off four times– his first interceptions of the season. He finishes the year with 895 passing yards and 11 TDs.
Glendenning caught four passes for 85 yards and a score.
Senior Trevor Johnson, Darlington’s other 1,000-yard rusher this season, was limited to 20 yards on four carries and had one catch for 10 yards. He ends his season with 1,131 rushing yards, and finishes his career with over 2,350 rushing yards, 900 receiving yards and 54 TDs scored for the Redbirds.
Ortiz rumbled 24 times for 132 yards and a TD to lead the Rambles, while Brickner added 45 yards on 15 careers with a TD.
Petit went 6-for-10 through the air for 154 yards with a TD and two picks. Forden had four catches for 124 yards and a score.
Defensively for the Redbirds, senior Logan Muhlstein registered a team-high 12 tackles with nine solo stops and one tackle for a loss. Schwartz added 11 tackles (nine solo) with an interception, and senior Jake Tuescher tallied 10 tackles.
Senior Brayden McDonald added an interception, while junior Bailey McGuire forced a fumble for the ‘Birds.
Playing in their final prep football game at DHS were seniors Will Schwartz, Jared Meister, Hunter Johnson, Hayden Hardyman, Christian Carr, Ryan Glendenning, Charlie Morrone, Trevor Johnson, Brayden McDonald, Mitchell Wagner, Alvaro Barrera, Josh Weaver, Jesse Sturtz, Austin Burbach, Jarrett Lancaster, Chad Golackson, Logan Muhlstein and Jake Tuescher.
“The (seniors) led by example the last four years. They did things the right way. They love each other and worked hard for each other,” Zywicki said of a senior class that went 38-4 over the past three seasons and finished the 2016 season as the second-best scoring team in state history with 718 points.
“They’re one of the best teams who have gone through our program. This group had all the ingredients for success. They just didn’t play the game they needed to today. Hopefully the younger kids will learn from this and they’ll come back stronger for it next year.”
WIAA DIVISION 6 STATE FINAL
Regis………. 10 10 7 0 – 27
Darlington… 0 0 0 14 – 14
R – Nicolai, FG 27
R – Brickner, 6 run (Nicolai kick)
R – Ortiz, 2 run (Nicolai kick)
R – Nicolai, FG 21
R – Forden, 55 pass from Petit (Nicolai kick)
D – Hunter Johnson, 2 pass from Jared Meister (Alvaro Barrera kick)
D – Ryan Glendenning, 36 pass from Jared Meister (Barrera kick)
Team Stats: First Downs– R 16; D 14. Rushing– R 57-225; D 30-110. Passing– R 6-11-2, 154; D 8-26-4, 139. Fumbles-Lost– R 0-0; D 2-1. Penalties– R 1-4; D 1-5.
Darlington Leaders: Rushing (Att-Yds-Td)– Hunter Johnson 17-95-1; Trevor Johnson 4-20-0; Kameron Blosch 2-6-0; Tyler Mosley 1-1-0; Jared Meister 6-(12)-0. Passing (Comp-Att-Int-Td-Yds)– Jared Meister 8-24-4-1, 139; H. Johnson 0-1-0-0. Receiving (Cat-Yds-Td)– Ryan Glendenning 4-85-1; H. Johnson 2-28-0, Will Schwartz 1-16-0, T. Johnson 1-10-0.