The West De Pere football team has made it to the last three WIAA Division 3 state title games in part because of a defense that has been one of the best in the area.
As the Phantoms prepare for their semifinal playoff game against Waupaca at 7:05 p.m. Friday at Kimberly, is it possible this season’s defense is their best yet?
Perhaps there is nobody better to ask than Jack Batten, who has been the architect of the unit since being hired in 2006.
“Oh, boy, it would be hard to find one that is any better,” Batten said. “Individually, I’m not sure we have one standout guy. We have a bunch of good ballplayers.
“I guess the jury is still out on us a little bit this year. We have got a big contest coming up on Friday, and hopefully another test down the road.”
Even if there are a few remaining questions, here’s what is known about the defense: The Phantoms had the Bay Conference defensive player of the year in senior lineman Brad Ambrosius and five other first-team defenders in senior lineman Chris Smits, senior linebackers Andy Koltz and Steven Miller, senior defensive back Kegan Wirtz and junior defensive back Chandler Diekvoss.
Senior defensive linemen Semi Sago and Tyler Pasterski were second-team picks.
Which means 72.3 percent of their starting defense earned all-conference honors after allowing just 6.1 points and 116.6 yards per game in league play. Opposing teams rushed for 34.4 yards and didn’t do much better through the air.
Diekvoss led the Bay with six interceptions, and Wirtz was so good that he is a Jim Leonhard Award finalist for the best senior defensive back in the state.
Some of the faces change from season to season, but the results have stayed the same.
“It’s definitely the way we practice,” Wirtz said. “We practice an hour-and-a-half, two hours a day. We get everything done fast. We practice exactly how we play.
“We have great coaches who are going to get us our technique. Once we have our technique, we get a real good game plan.”
The Phantoms have trust that each of the 11 defenders will take care of their assignment.
Just as important is that all 11 run to the football on each play. That part is not negotiable with Batten, and his players know it. The coaches check the film after every game to make sure everyone is giving full hustle. If they aren’t, they don’t see the field.
Batten keeps things simple, but the unit must be ready to adapt. West De Pere has faced more wide-open offenses the past few seasons than ever before, playing against empty sets, one-back and shotgun.
But the main principle never changes.
Play fast. Get to the football. Tackle well.
“It’s really not my expectation anymore,” Batten said. “It’s become their expectation of how we are going to play.”
West De Pere has not allowed more than 14 points in any game this season, and it hasn’t slowed down in the playoffs.
The Phantoms blanked Antigo in a first-round win, allowed just six points in a second-round win against Two Rivers and permitted one touchdown in a quarterfinal victory against Plymouth.
Waupaca will be yet another challenge, but the uncomfortable part for the Comets might be that there still is another level the Phantoms can reach on defense.
“We definitely can get better,” Wirtz said. “We can get better every single day at practice, and that is our focus. When you come to the playoffs, the playoff format is designed so that the best teams make it to state and you are facing a bigger challenge every week.
“With that, with facing a bigger challenge every week, you have got to get better every week. I can definitely tell we are getting better every week.”