One is a poster child for consistent, unwavering success is Division 2 football. The other is a program trying to smash through its glass ceiling. Both figure to be the frontrunners in what could be an extremely intriguing race for the Badger North title.
Waunakee enters 2019 coming off a 12-1 record and a state semifinals appearance last fall. That sort of success is nothing new for the Warriors, who have been a conference and state powerhouse under Hall of Fame head coach Pat Rice.
In 28 years under Rice, Waunakee has gone 286-40, won six state championships (the latest coming in 2017), finished as state runner-up another three times and made it to the state semifinals on a staggering 15 different occasions. The Warriors have also won 18 conference championships in the last 21 years.
This level of success firmly puts Waunakee as the presumptive conference favorite most years. And though no one would be surprised to see the Warriors claim yet another Badger North crown in 2019, the battle at the top is far from a guaranteed one-team show this season.
The Warriors lost 14 starters to graduation from last year’s team, all of whom made the all-conference team and two of whom (defensive end Reed Ryan and wide receiver/defensive back Sawyer Maly) were all-state selections. In total, they bring back just three starters on offense and five starters on defense.
Roster turnover is, of course, an inherent part of high school football and it’s not like Waunakee hasn’t successfully dealt with it in the past. However, this much turnover opens the door of opportunity for an experienced DeForest team looking to break through.
In 2018, the Norskies went 8-3 overall and 6-1 in conference play, with two of their losses coming to rival Waunakee.
The Warriors soundly defeated DeForest 31-7 in their Week 4 matchup that proved to be the difference in the race for a conference title. The two teams met again in Level 2 of the playoffs, where the Norskies held a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and a 20-16 advantage early in the fourth quarter, only to see Waunakee rally to win 23-20.
It was the latest frustrating postseason defeat for a DeForest program that hasn’t made it past Level 2 since 2011. The Norskies have dropped 15 of their last 17 meetings with Waunakee, with the two wins coming in back-to-back years in 2013 and 2014. That stretch includes a six-game losing streak in the playoffs. DeForest’s last postseason win over Waunakee came in 2007, when the Norskies made it all the way to the Division 2 state championship game.
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DeForest owns three conference titles (1996, 2009, 2014) as a Badger North member. However, all three of those were shared championships and the Norskies are still searching for their first outright conference crown in the Badger North.
A legitimate chance to win an outright conference title could be sitting right in front of them this year. DeForest brings back six starters on offense and eight starters on defense. These returnees include starting quarterback Trey Schroeder, leading rusher Evan Armstrong and leading receiver Lane Larson.
For head coach Mike Minnick, who is 149-67 in 20 years at the helm at DeForest, this wealth of experience could provide a golden opportunity for a conference title and/or a deep playoff run. The regular-season finale in Week 9 between the Norskies and the Warriors in DeForest Friday, October 18 will be one to have circled on the calendar.
Outside those two, Mount Horeb/Barneveld could have a major say in the direction of the conference title race. The Vikings have made the postseason in each of the last 12 years and look well positioned to get back to the playoffs once again.
They boast seven returning starters on offense, including the electric senior duo of quarterback Ethan Post and wide receiver Charlie Fish. It’s on defense where the Vikings could face some difficulties that come with youth and inexperience, as they bring back just three defensive starters.
But if the defense comes together into a formidable unit, Mount Horeb/Barneveld could make some noise and even threaten to throw its hat into the conference title race.
Baraboo was the other Badger North team to punch its postseason ticket in 2018 — its first since 2006. The Thunderbirds and Reedsburg met in the last week of the regular season with each team needing a win to secure a playoff spot. It was Baraboo who eked out a 14-12 road win on a late go-ahead field goal to keep its season alive and deny the Beavers a postseason berth.
Both Baraboo and Reedsburg figure to be in the playoff hunt again in 2019. The Week 8 meeting between the two rivals in Reedsburg could go a long way in determining each team’s postseason fate.