There can be a stark contrast between expectations and reality from the start of a season to its finish.
Given its deep, talented roster, anchored by more than 20 experienced seniors, the Baraboo prep football team envisioned it would be among the final eight teams in Division 3 this fall.
Reality intervened on the Thunderbirds midway through the season however, when standout senior quarterback/linebacker Luna Larson suffered a knee injury early in the team’s 17-0 win over Stoughton in Week 4.
The injury to Larson, which sidelined him two-plus weeks, certainly impacted Baraboo, but coach Steve Turkington and the rest of the T-Birds never changed their expectations.
They were smart not to do so.
Since Larson came back minimally in a Week 7 loss to rival Reedsburg, he’s slowly gotten back to full health and helped get the T-Birds back on track as they’ve rattled off four straight wins to make their first-ever state quarterfinal appearance Friday night when they travel to No. 3 Rice Lake.
“We had a feeling at the beginning of the year this would be kind of the outcome for this team; you could just see the talent we have, especially the senior class. There’s 20-plus kids in senior class, which we’ve never had before in Baraboo, and numbers make a huge difference in football,” said Turkington, who is in the midst of his ninth season leading the T-Birds.
“It’s just another step in the process; they’re hoping for more, but right now they’re pretty excited about it.”
“It’s pretty crazy we’re here. I never thought we’d be in the quarterfinals,” senior Gabe Fitzwilliams added.
Hopes of a run to the state quarterfinals were certainly dented when Larson was injured against the Vikings. But in his stead the fifth-seeded T-Birds (9-2) grinded out a one-point win over Mt. Horeb/Barneveld before suffering consecutive losses to Fort Atkinson (27-6) and the rival Beavers (21-20).
Larson made his return however against Sauk Prairie, and while just playing solely on offense at first, has made his impact known. During Baraboo’s current four-game winning streak, Larson has rushed for 562 yards and four touchdowns on 88 attempts, including 193 yards and a score in last week’s 35-28 upset win over top-seeded Mosinee.
Everybody chipping in
As exciting as it’s been for Larson to get back on the field, he enjoyed seeing his teammates pick up the mantle.
“It’s nice to see the other guys step up, because that builds their confidence too,” he said. “Then they’re not looking at me to make a play or anything like that; everybody knows they can do it.”
“When he went down against Stoughton, a whole different gauge hit me and I kind of had to lead. I think I did pretty well,” Fitzwilliams added.
Turkington would agree, not only about Fitzwilliams but the entire T-Birds team.
“We’ve got seniors that are on the scout team that can step up and play in key situations. We’ve had some younger guys step up; some sophomores that are playing right now and getting really good playing time,” he said.
“We’ve got depth right now, and I think that’s another key part in this whole season. We’ve had some injuries where guys have gotten banged up and we’ve had others just step up.”
That’s not to say it isn’t clear who the team’s go-to playmaker is.
“When you add him, I mean, he’s the dude,” Turkington said of Larson, who didn’t play again defensively until the T-Birds Week 9 win over Portage.
“He’s the guy that’s going to make plays, so offensively and defensively, when you get him on both sides of the ball, he changes our whole team. The dynamics of the team are always strong. We’ve got great leadership and there’s other seniors that lead, but he can do things other kids can’t. He’s one of the best players in the state.”
Larson definitely has been, but the T-Birds aren’t a one trick pony.
Senior Kane Mahoney leads the Baraboo rushing attack with 1,308 yards and eight scores, while Larson has a trio of skilled wide receivers in Brady Henry (27 catches, 386 yards, 2 TDs), Caden Agnew (21-234-0) and Riley Weyh (16-218-3).
The passing game especially has emerged down the stretch as Larson has thrown for 407 yards and three scores with one interception on 33-of-52 passes in the last four games. While they mostly run the ball, Turkington knows how much of a luxury it is to be able to succeed through the air.
“There are some games, obviously, as a defensive coach you try to shut down a team’s run game. There have been some teams that have done that, and even Rhinelander, they did a nice job against our run game,” Turkington said. “The difference was the ability to throw the ball, and when that happens, we don’t panic; we just are able to make plays through the air.”
New foe, familiar scheme
The T-Birds aren’t panicking this week either going against a Rice Lake team that’s in a very familiar spot and has succeeded using a throwback offensive scheme. The Warriors (9-2) are back in the state quarterfinals for the fifth time in eight seasons after rolling by Medford, 48-14, and Onalaska, 42-7.
The Warriors, who average 31 points per game, feature an offense similar to the T-Birds with an attack that favors the run but isn’t afraid to pass, albeit in a much different scheme.
Rice Lake utilizes a flexbone, option attack, first implemented by longtime coach and Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer LaVern Pottinger back in 1997. If that name sounds familiar to T-Birds fans, it should as his son and former Reedsburg coach Brian Pottinger, ran the same style offense during his coaching tenure with the Beavers.
So while Baraboo may not have seen the option-heavy look during the regular season, they won’t be going into Friday’s game blind. Still, Turkington understands the threats the flexbone poses.
“Especially when you don’t see it all year and then all of a sudden you see it in the state quarterfinals, it’s like ‘Okay, we need to change some things. Do some things differently,’” he said.
“The strength of our defense has been stopping the run. Not that it’s your traditional run game, but it’s our strength. We’ll have to make some adjustments and it’s a challenge, but we’re up for it.”
Rice Lake has three players with at last 350 rushing yards, paced by senior Christian Lindow. The 6-foot, 185-pound fullback has rushed for a team-high 705 yards and nine touchdowns on 135 carries this season.
Close behind him is senior quarterback Cole Fenske, who has a matching nine scores to go along with 522 yards. Fenske also has also thrown for 1,121 yards with 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions on 51-of-93 passing.
While the Warriors’ rushing attack has a number of weapons — Elliott Nolin has 378 yards and three TDs, while two more rushers have just shy of 200 yards apiece as the Warriors have racked up 2,181 yards and 24 scores — there’s no question who the leading receiving threat is. Senior Alex Belongia has a team-high 33 catches for 805 yards with a dozen touchdowns, using both his 6-3 frame to outleap defenders and sporting plenty of speed to boot.
To show just how staggering Belongia’s numbers are, no other Warrior has more than five catches or is over 100 yards this season through 11 games.
Whether it be through the air or on the ground, Larson, Fitzwilliams and co. understand the assignment.
“We just have to go out there and play; don’t do anything extra, just play football, do your job and see what happens,” Larson said.
“Just go 100 percent and do your job,” Fitzwilliams added.
While history may be on the Warriors’ side — Rice Lake has won each of its last four Level 3 appearances, including an eventual state title in 2018 and a runner-up finish in 2014 — the T-Birds aren’t deterred. Even with a first-ever state semifinals appearance on the line next week against either Luxemburg-Casco (11-0) or Menasha (9-2), Turkington knows his team isn’t looking ahead.
“I think they have a kind of quiet confidence about themselves where they don’t think much beyond the next game,” he said. “They just play it as hard as they can, and that’s what you want as a coach; kids who are focused on the task at hand and that’s all they worry about.
“They’re not worried about history or any of that stuff. We remind them of the history and what they’ve accomplished so they can appreciate it, but I think they just want to play football.”