LODI — The Lodi prep football is hoping the last breakthrough left for the Blue Devils won't take as long as the monumental achievement that preceded it.
After coming up one win short of trip to the WIAA state finals in 2005, 2009 and 2014, the Blue Devils finally got that monkey off their back when they won their state semifinal two years ago and made their Division 4 title game debut.
It was an underwhelming first appearance for Lodi in 2015, as the senior-laden and unbeaten Blue Devils were shut out by Middle Border Conference champion Osceola 28-0. The sophomore class from that team now has a chance to finish what the 2015 team started when they take the field at Camp Randall Stadium tonight for a second time in three years.
“It’s really special because we want to get this one done for the guys before us who couldn’t finish it," senior running back Mitchell Nellen said. "We want to do it for all the guys who paved the way for us to show us how to get it done."
Once again, the Blue Devils (13-0) went unbeaten through the regular season and feature another deep, senior-laden roster. And across the field tonight will be another Middle Border team in defending state champion St. Croix Central.
For Blue Devils coach Dave Puls, however, the similarities between this year's team and the 2015 squad end there.
“Last year was last year and the year before that was the year before that,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to utilize anything positive, negative or otherwise from two years ago. That was a great experience and there are some things we can draw from, but it’s about this group of kids.”
This year’s group had plenty of motivation coming into this season after a disappointing finish last year. The Blue Devils opened the 2016 campaign 6-0 before going 2-3 over its final five games, including a 33-7 loss to eventual state runner-up River Valley in Level 2 of the postseason.
“We had a lot of drive,” senior quarterback Cameron McDonald said of the team's mindset this year. “We knew this year we had a very good team, but we also knew we had a lot of competition this year. We got in the weight room, we got on the field and worked hard, and as a team we made it this far.”
Lodi steamrolled through the regular season unbeaten and was minimally tested. The Blue Devils got a scare from eighth-seeded Mayville in Level 1 of the playoffs, but held off the Cardinals 38-31 and have cruised from there. After routing Platteville (47-21), Lodi pitched back-to-back shutouts over Lake Mills (35-0) and Greendale Martin Luther (17-0).
“The wins throughout the playoffs, we kept getting better and better,” McDonald said.
“I feel like since we’ve had this goal our entire year, our entire lives, that now that we knew it was crunch time, we had to give it our all every game," senior linebacker Max Barreau added.
The seniors have been the key on both sides of the ball for the Blue Devils this season. The 27 players suiting up for the final time tonight didn’t make much of an impact on the 2015 state runner-up team, but have come up big this year.
Offensively, Lodi has relied on its dominant rushing attack. Behind a stout offensive line made up of all seniors, the Blue Devils have rushed for 3,946 yards and 51 touchdowns. Senior running back Jacob Heyroth has accounted for a team-high 2,758 yards and 35 scores, while Nellen has added 584 yards and eight touchdowns.
“The guys up front love blocking and we just have to stay the course, blocking for these guys and making holes,” senior center Sam Kerr said.
Heyroth was held to 141 yards in the semifinal vs. Martin Luther after topping 300 yards rushing in Lodi's first three playoff games, including a 392-yard effort in a 35-0 quarterfinal win over Lake Mills. He is 242 yards away from becoming just the second player in state history to rush for 3,000 yards in a season, according to the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association.
But hitting that mark could be difficult given St. Croix Central’s sound defense. The Panthers have a number of two-way players that have helped hold teams to just 122.8 rushing yards per game.
“The trenches are going to be a battlefield and I hope we can get some decent blocks here and there,” Puls said.
If things get difficult, the Blue Devils will have to be able to pass, which hasn’t been a problem this year. McDonald has thrown for 994 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“If our run game does stop, we need to be able to throw the ball, take some pressure off the running backs and get the ball in the air to put more pressure on the safeties and corners,” McDonald said.
The balanced offense has helped the Blue Devils average 39.1 points per game while the defense has been just as dominant. Lodi has limited teams to just 9.6 points per game and is winning by an average margin of 29.5 points.
The Blue Devils, who have 99 tackles for loss, 36 sacks and 30 turnovers, have three players with 55 or more tackles. Barreau, the Capitol North Defensive Player of the Year, leads the team with 68 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and five sacks.
As dominant as the Blue Devils have been this season, they will tested against the Panthers. The defending champs have a strong rushing attack and a shutdown defense of their own, but Nellen knows the team is up for the challenge.
“We know what we need to do,” he said. “The stage shouldn’t matter as long as we do our jobs.”
“We’re just going to have to play as physical and as fast as we’ve played all year,” Puls added. “We have to reach a new level of intensity and aggressiveness, because they’re going to match that the whole night.”