Even though it wasn’t at its home field, the Appleton North football team took in the postgame fireworks after its game with rival Appleton East on Friday.
The Lightning took it as a sign of celebration, even if it wasn’t meant for them.
“We knew we had to step it up tonight and play our game,” Lightning running back Sawyer Schultz said after North’s comeback 28-17 win over the Patriots at East, giving the Lightning the Valley Football Association-North Division championship.
As with most sustained efforts, North found its share of adversity during its eight regular-season games, whether it was injuries to key players or a slap in the face from an inspired opponent. East provided one last barrier to the Lightning on Friday, surprising North with 17 second-quarter points and a 17-14 halftime lead.
“We’ve been talking about our leaders all season and tonight our leaders had to step up a little,” North coach Rob Salm said. “At halftime you could tell our leaders were not happy with what happened in that first half.
“Physically they were taking it to us pretty good. We were a step slow and we were lucky to be down just three (points), to be honest with you.”
Mostly for the Lightning, it was about making sure that there would be no sharing of the conference title, as Kimberly was beating Appleton West 49-7 on Friday in an effort to grab a piece of the league’s top spot. North (8-0 overall, 7-0 VFA-North) used a dose of passing, a liberal dash of Schultz’s running and a big dollop of defense to turn things around in the second half against East.
Schultz provided the consistency, running 30 times for 174 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown on a six-yard run in the third quarter.
“We just stuck to our game plan and played Appleton North football,” he said between booms of the shells lighting up the sky with streaks of color after East’s homecoming game.
Meanwhile, a somewhat shaky Lightning passing game found a big-play groove in the second half, with quarterback Tanner Schuh finishing with 201 yards on 17-of-28 passing.
Of eight plays of 10 yards or more in the second half for the Lightning, pass plays accounted for seven of them. That included five completions for 99 yards in North’s final TD drive that overcame two holding penalties.
“We just couldn’t find a rhythm in the first half,” Salm said. “They were playing man coverage against us offensively and we couldn’t get anything going. They’re a good defense but we couldn’t put anything together.”
East’s rhythm was at its best in the first half. The Patriots scored first on Jared Jirschele’s six-yard run and later Gabe Heindel’s 31-yard field goal that was set up on Sam Johnson’s athletic block and interception of Schuh’s pass. East then stunned the Lightning after it had pulled to within 10-7 on Heindel’s 90-yard kickoff return midway through the second period.
The Patriots (5-3, 4-3), who are headed to the playoffs , couldn’t sustain the emotion and execution needed to beat their crosstown rival for the first time since 2003.
“It is a mental thing, certainly,” East coach Pat Schwanke said. “I don’t think there’s any question about it, even though I don’t want to take away anything from Appleton North. They’re a very good football team. But it’s another one of those mental hurdles we have to jump over.”
East managed to move the ball against the Lightning in the final two quarters, but had its four second-half drives end on a punt, a failed fourth-down play, a blocked field goal and an interception.
“We moved the ball up and down the field but made a few mistakes here and there,” Schwanke said. “But we’ll learn, we’ll move on. The new season starts for us on Monday. Our guys have a great attitude and I don’t think anyone will want to play us in the new season.”
Meanwhile, North is mostly concerned with keeping its unbeaten season going, starting with its opponent in next week’s WIAA Level 1 playoff game, which is expected to be announced later today. While the Lightning might not be getting its own fireworks display, a conference title makes a pretty sweet, shiny thing to look at, too.
“Tonight was another example of kids who believe in each other,” Salm said. “When you have a group who are fighting for the same thing, it’s tough to beat.”
AE: Jared Jirschele 6 run (Gabe Heindel kick)
AE: Heindel 31 FG
AN: Dan Rothbauer 5 pass from Tanner Schuh (Trent Beilke kick)
AE: Heindel 90 kickoff return (Heindel kick)
AN: Troy Van De Voort 23 pass from Schuh (Beilke kick)
AN: Sawyer Schultz 6 run (Beilke kick)
AN: Frank Van Handel 11 pass from Schuh (Beilke kick)
Rushing – Appleton North: Schultz 30-174, Schuh 5-3, Rothbauer 5-(-6), Team 2-(-1). Appleton East: Jirschele 19-75, Tony Bauer 5-15, Tyler Piehl 3-(-4), Garrett Peterson 3-(-6).
Passing – Appleton North: Schuh 17-28-201-2. Appleton East: Piehl 4-9-62-0, Peterson 6-8-52-1.
Receiving – Appleton North: Van De Voort 5-85, Van Handel 5-81, Rothbauer 4-26, Schultz 2-9, Weston Floehrke 1-0. Appleton East: Brady Jansen 4-50, Nathan Smith 4-50, Joe Benthein 1-8, Heindel 1-6.