Commentary

Wisconsin powers on display in title game

Updated: December 3, 2008, 12:10 PM ET
By Marlin Lee | Special to ESPNRISE.com

MADISON, Wis. -- "Two out of three ain't bad," a song and lyrics made popular by rock singer Meat Loaf back in 1977, could very well be used as the tagline for the 2008 Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association's Division 1 state championship game.

Mequon Homestead
Homeland Football Mequon Homestead won a hard-fought battle for its second title in three years.

Meeting Nov. 21 at Camp Randall Stadium were two teams who knew each other well. Very well, in fact. Very well, as in playing each other in the state's biggest game on the state's biggest stage for the third consecutive year. Those teams: Hartland Arrowhead and Mequon Homestead.

The first matchup between these two teams in a state championship game came in 2006, with Homestead winning 35-0, but Arrowhead got its revenge in 2007 with a 31-7 win. This year's edition proved to be the closest of all, with Homestead eking out a 13-11 win in the waning moments.

Making a state-record ninth championship game appearance, Hartland Arrowhead entered the game with a perfect 13-0 record, riding a high-powered veer offense that had outscored opponents 525-153.

That Arrowhead offense consisted of a number of big-time players, including Division I college prospects Jared Volk (6-foot-4, 287 pounds) and Nick Doehling (6-2, 296) on the offensive line, as well as running backs Calvin Ramsey (1,261 yards and 16 touchdowns) and Brian Crook (1,071 yards and 24 touchdowns).

The Homestead Highlanders, also 13-0, were making their fourth state championship game appearance and had outscored their opponents 472-116, including allowing just 44 points through the first four rounds of the WIAA playoffs.

While Arrowhead's claim to fame came on offense, Homestead boasted a talented defense. Manning the defensive end positions were 2007 Wisconsin Football Coaches Association State Defensive Player of the Year Shelby Harris (6-3, 240) and 2008 North Shore Conference Defensive Player of the Year Ben Gardner (6-4, 230). Both Division I college recruits, Harris is a University of Wisconsin verbal, while Gardner lists scholarship offers from the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State.

Homeland Football
Homeland Football Homeland's seniors finished their season on top.

With two such storied teams and the rivalry that had developed between them over the two previous seasons, players from both schools were ready to end the argument over who had the better program.

"It's kind of come to the point where we expect to play Homestead in the championship every year," Arrowhead linebacker Joey Balthazor said. "We also played Homestead in 2005 in the second round and lost. Since then, we've always been on opposite side of the bracket. There is without a doubt a bitter rivalry now because of these past couple years."

"I kind of felt like we were going to play them again and I really wanted to because I wanted to settle this once and for all," Homestead junior running back Bryan Bronaugh said.

Built up like a heavyweight boxing match, the Wisconsin high school football version of the Thrilla in Manila started with plenty of emotions on both sides.

"I was so jacked going into the game," Homestead defensive back Bobby Ollman said. "The whole week, we talked about having this game again and the score of the game last year."

"Going into the game, I had some butterflies in my stomach," Arrowhead kicker Jeff Budzien said. "I don't see how someone couldn't have butterflies when they're playing for a state championship game."

One of the top kickers in the nation, Budzien lost those butterflies in a hurry as Arrowhead won the coin toss and deferred, and Homestead elected to receive, giving Budzien the opportunity to start the game with a booming 60-yard kickoff.

From there, the teams traded possessions throughout the first quarter, defenses holding strong, not allowing either team's offense to make much headway.

Finally, at the end of the first quarter, Arrowhead was able to put together a five-play, 54-yard drive that ended with Budzien making a 32-yard field goal with 11:53 remaining in the second quarter.

It didn't take long for the team to get on the board again, as on the very next drive, Arrowhead was able to hold the Highlanders to three and out, setting up a fourth-down punt on which Arrowhead sophomore Derek Landisch blocked Homestead's Casey Barnes' kick, giving Arrowhead a safety and the 5-0 lead.

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Down but not out, two plays after the ensuing kickoff, Homestead defensive back Tom Engel picked off Arrowhead's Tom Parish, returning the interception 42 yards for a Highlanders touchdown.

"When Arrowhead took that 5-0 lead, the momentum was clearly on their side," Homestead tight end Josh Wichman said. "Tommy Engel's interception return for a touchdown was a huge play in the game and really gave the entire team a great burst of energy. From then on, I had a good feeling about the game."

After an exciting three-minute span in which the teams combined for 12 points, the remainder of the first half was a defensive struggle, with neither team moving the ball effectively.

Defense continued to be the theme at the start of the second half, as Arrowhead was forced to punt twice and Homestead threw an interception.

Homestead, the No. 47 team in the ESPN RISE FAB 50, finally was able to put together a seven-play, 82-yard drive late in the third quarter that ended with a 15-yard touchdown run by Bronaugh with 26 seconds left on the clock.

The fourth quarter started off ugly, with both teams turning over the ball via interceptions. Homestead's Engel picked off Arrowhead quarterback Parish for the second time in the game, and then Homestead quarterback Casey Barnes threw an interception to Arrowhead's Jake Poehls.

With 6:07 remaining in the game and down 13-5, Arrowhead began its comeback. An eight-play, 87-yard drive utilizing the backfield trio of Parish, Ramsey and Crook culminated in a 34-yard touchdown run by Ramsey with 2:30 left in the game.

Down 13-11 with little time remaining, Arrowhead then had to try the ever-important two-point conversation, but Parish's fade pass to the back of the end zone was ruled incomplete when the receiver's feet were determined to be out of bounds.

In a last-ditch effort to make a comeback, Budzien attempted an on-side kick, but unfortunately for the Warhawks, it fell into the hands of the Homestead kickoff return team. The Highlanders then proceeded to run out the clock, giving them a 13-11 win and the WIAA Division 1 state championship trophy.

"When the final whistle blew, it was really an overwhelming feeling," Homestead's Ben Gardner said. "Our senior class had been playing together for eight years with the goal of a state championship in our minds. We made that dream a reality and all I really wanted to do was thank everybody. Everybody worked so hard to make a championship possible and the hard work finally paid off."

With the so-called best two out of three competition complete and Homestead now holding gold balls from 2006 and 2008, Highlanders fans should be happy.

Arrowhead's response: How about best three out of five?

Marlin Lee is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.