Tigers rush past Chargers in Level 3

Wittenberg-Birnamwood’s football season comes to an end
Dustin Riese

When a team reaches Level 3 of the high school football playoffs, there are no more easy games.

This the point when the eight best teams in their respective divisions get together to compete for their spot in the state semifinal games. Wittenberg-Birnamwood has not only been one of the best teams in the state all season, they have continued to do it in a variety of ways that helped them race out to a 10-1 record through 11 games.

Looking to extend their season at least one more week, the Chargers were in for a tough task as the No. 3-seeded Wrightstown Tigers came to town after pulling off an upset against Southern Door in Week 2. Posting a 9-2 record of their own, Wrightstown is no ordinary No. 3 seed, and they can beat anyone on any given day.

This was one of those days for the Tigers. Their rushing attack set the tone on offense while their defense forced three Wittenberg-Birnamwood turnovers to lead them to a 41-17 victory, ending the Chargers’ season.

“It just wasn’t our night tonight,” coach Jason Rieck said. “We made far too many mistakes in this game, and that is something we haven’t done much this season. You can’t do that this late in the season, especially against a team like Wrightstown and expect to come out on top.”

The lopsided final score was not indicated early in the game. Rather, it was the Chargers with momentum who got on the scoreboard first and looked as though they might bust things open.

Jett Rogowski started the game with an end around carry for a first down, while Marshall Fraaza, Nathan Waupekenay and Bryson Schmid each picked up first-down carries to keep the drive moving. Eventually, the Tigers defense started to toughen up and forced a fourth and long at the 17. Waupekenay went for the end zone, only to come up short.

That was the theme of the game for Wittenberg-Birnamwood all game long as they had opportunities to pick up points only to be turned away by the Tigers’ defense. Immediately following their turnover on downs, the Chargers’ defense got into the backfield to make plays and force a quick three and out. Things went from bad to worse for the Tigers as the ball was snapped over the head of the punter and resulted in a safety for Braeden Groshek to put the Chargers in front 2-0.

It was the second safety in two weeks for Wittenberg-Birnamwood as their defense turned it up once the playoffs started. On the ensuing kick, Owen Dickman not only fielded the free kick, but he got to the outside and took it to the house. Dickman returned the kick 60 yards to put the Chargers up 9-0.

What looked to be a potential blowout suddenly changed on the next possession. The Tigers not only started to control the tempo, but they didn’t allow another point until the fourth quarter and used 34 unanswered points to seize control.

“Overall, I thought we played well as a team but made too many early mistakes,” said Waupekenay, the senior quarterback. “We moved the ball fairly well throughout the game, but our mistakes proved costly, especially the ones that came from me. There were some plays where I misread the routes, and I felt that I could’ve done better.”

The big reason for that was a rushing attack that gashed the Chargers’ defense for 321 yards as Wittenberg-Birnamwood had no answers for them.

Aiden Humphries had a big game, touching the ball 14 times for 143 yards and two scores, but he wasn’t the only one picking up yards on the ground. Payton Vande Hey added 94 yards on eight carries with two more scores, including the first score of the night for the Tigers to pull within 9-7.

Looking to keep their offensive momentum going following that TD, Rogowski picked up another first-down run to open the next drive, only to have Waupekenay get picked off for one of his two interceptions in the game.

One play later it was Payton Vande Hey going to work again as he found an opening and raced 78 yards for the go-ahead TD; the Tigers never looked back, leading 14-9. The Tigers’ defense continued to limit the Chargers’ offense late in the first half, which helped lead to another second-half TD with Humphries plowing in from three yards out to push the lead to 20-9 at the half.

“We knew coming into this game that it was going to be a challenge slowing down that rushing attack,” Rieck said. “You can only see so much on film, and they are a very fast and physical team on offense. Not only that, but they do a great job mixing and matching their personnel to keep you honest, and that makes it tough for a defense to adjust to during the game.”

In desperate need of points, the Chargers didn’t do themselves any favors to begin the second half as the opening kickoff went out of bounds to give the Tigers great field position. Fortunately, the Chargers’ defense held, but that momentum was quickly taken away as Waupekenay was intercepted for the second time on the next possession giving the Tigers great field position yet again.

It is hard to believe a team can win a game by throwing just one pass, but that is what the Tigers did as their rushing attack continued to give the Chargers fits with Trevor Vande Hey picking up the 39-yard TD on a QB draw and extending the lead to 27-9. Trevor Vande Hey also added more than 60 yards on the ground as the Tigers had three rushers with at least 60 yards in the game.

Things only got worse for Wittenberg-Birnamwood from there as another Tigers interception on the next possession led to a 49-yard TD run from Humphries.

The Chargers were not going to go down without a fight and put together their best offensive drive in the fourth quarter. Despite facing a fourth and long early in the drive, it was Fraaza keeping things alive with a first down that set things up for the 19-yard scramble for Waupekenay to move the chains once more. One play later, Waupekenay found Rogowski for the completion and moved the ball inside the two-yard line before Coye Brillowski picked up the lone offensive score of the night for the Chargers to make things 34-17.

That was as close as the Chargers would get, as Wrightstown added another rushing touchdown later in the fourth to close out the scoring.

“I knew this season was going to be special since our first practice,” Waupekenay said. “After playing together for a year last season, we found out pretty quickly that we could be a powerhouse type of team this season. Beating Amherst twice in the same season has never been in the history of our program until this season. This was a great team to be a part of, and this is a season all of us are going to remember.”