WILD ROSE — Dressed in purple uniforms from head to toe, the Wildcats of Wild Rose were indeed people eaters this season, holding opponents to just six touchdowns in all while allowing only 3.5 points per game.
But Fall River’s prep football team was up to the challenge — and, it turns out, just as impenetrable.
Sam Nelson’s two-point conversion run following a touchdown burst by Davyn Braker with less than a minute to go in the first half gave the Pirates the lead, and the Fall River defense did the rest, holding the Wildcats to 41 yards of offense in the second half en route to an 8-7 victory here Friday night in the quarterfinals of the WIAA Division 7 playoffs.
“We made a statement, definitely,” Pirates head coach Joe Zander said. “Our defense is pretty stout.”
Even more impressive, the Pirates’ final defensive stand — with under 3 minutes to go and the Wildcats starting at their own 27-yard line — came with defensive standout Tanner Liebenthal on the sideline because of a leg cramp suffered on Fall River’s previous offensive series.
Liebenthal was drinking water like his life depended on it, though. And while it didn’t get him back on the field in time, it did limber him up enough to celebrate like a madman when the time ticked off the clock.
“I’m feeling amazing right now,” Liebenthal said. “Wooooh! I was just so excited watching from the sideline point of view.”
Wild Rose (11-1) never did threaten in the second half, although the Wildcats did march to midfield late in the third quarter and then got the ball back at midfield when they recovered a fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Fall River (11-1) never threatened in the second half, either, even though Wild Rose was playing without linebacker Tanner Deist, the defensive player of the year in the Small division of the Central Wisconsin Conference who broke his leg in Week 9.
But the Pirates defense — which came in allowing only 13.3 points per contest — made sure the one TD and two-point conversion would be enough to exact a measure of revenge against a Wild Rose team that handed Fall River its only loss of the season, 27-12 in Week 2.
The Wildcats never reached the red zone outside of their one scoring drive, and often were pinned back in unfavorable field position.
“I was amazed at how often they had the ball inside their own 20,” Liebenthal said.
Wild Rose scored on the first play of the second quarter when Lucas Hackney burst in off left guard from a yard out, a score that came courtesy of the Wildcats having converted on fourth-and-19 three plays earlier.
But the Pirates answered two series later when they took advantage of a short field — backed up inside their own 15-yard-line, the Wildcats were only able to punt it out to the 35 — and made it 7-6 on Braker’s burst up the middle.
Then came what amounted to the play of the game — Nelson’s two-point conversion run.
“It was a run up the middle to the left, and I watched him cut back right. It was just amazing football IQ — it was wide open (to the right), and he got in,” Liebenthal said. “It was just awesome.”
It was Nelson’s second effort and ability to feel his way through traffic that has the Pirates in the state semifinals — they’ll play Black Hawk next Friday night in Middleton — for the first time in program history.
“That’s just Sam right there,” Zander said. “His desire, and his work in the weight room, got him into the end zone for those two points.”
In fact, the same could be said about the Pirates as a whole. They weren’t ready for this season to end — and they played like it.
“It was the kids’ heart,” Zander said. “It was just one of those games — their passion, you could see the fire in the kids’ eyes.”
They’ll need it again next week if they want to book a trip to Camp Randall Stadium come Nov. 16.
But don’t count on a complicated game plan or too much emphasis on the stakes of next week’s contest.
“Nothing too different; it’s just prepping for what the other team does best,” Zander said. “It’s just football — and these kids know how to play it.”
FALL RIVER 8, WILD ROSE 7
Fall River 0 8 0 0 — 8
Wild Rose 0 7 0 0 — 7
WR — Lucas Hackney 2 run (Alec Vandecastle kick), 11:55, 2nd
FR — Davyn Braker 4 run (Sam Nelson run), 0:49, 2nd
First downs — FR 12, WR 12. Rushes-Yards — FR 41-131, WR 41-131. Passing (Comp.-Att.-Int.) — FR 4-7-1, WR 3-8-1. Passing yards — FR 29, WR 16. Fumbles-Lost — FR 1-1, WR 5-3. Penalties-Yards — FR 2-30 WR 3-20.
Rushing: Fall River — Davyn Braker 13-63, Tanner Liebenthal 8-29, Sam Nelson 11-27, Luke Figol 8-14. Wild Rose — Lucas Hackney 20-85, Alec Vandecastle 12-79. Passing (Comp.-Att.-TD-Int., Yds): FR — Luke Figol 4-7-0-1, 29. WR — Dillon Martin 3-8-0-1, 16. Receiving: FR — Tanner Liebenthal 3-31. WR — Lucas Hackney 3-16.