The regular season is over and WIAA football playoffs are ready to begin Friday.
Marshfield, Stratford, Edgar, Nekoosa, Amherst and Stevens Point Area Senior High — to name a few –were breathing easy after having locked up playoff berths with several weeks left in the season.
However, a number of local football teams were holding their collective breaths as the regular season wound down, fighting and scratching to meet the criteria required to keep their seasons alive this week.
For many of the local teams that had to win their final two games of the regular season just to qualify for the Level 1 round, the playoffs have been in full swing for several weeks.
“We talked to our kids (before the Tri-County game Oct. 5) about these games being playoff games,” Almond-Bancroft coach Andrew Bradley said. “We’ve had a philosophy where we needed to go 1-0 each week and we want to continue that on.
“We’re not satisfied just t be in the playoffs,” Bradley added. “We’re playing well and we want to see what happens.”
For all their hard work to get into the playoffs, the Eagles (5-3) earned a date with unbeaten and second-seeded Suring on Friday.
Several other coaches around the area can relate to the dilemma Almond-Bancroft faced in the closing weeks of the regular season.
Having dealt with the pressure of a win-or-go-home scenario — or in this case, see your season end after the final game of the regular season — many coaches feel like their teams are battled-tested and playoff ready.
Wausau East was in that situation for the second straight year, needing to beat crosstown rival Wausau West in the last regular season game to extend its season.
“It’s a credit to these kids for the effort and being able to put that game-winning drive together and beat West. This group is a really confident group that has won some big games,” said East coach Steve Jung, whose team won its last three games to clinch its postseason berth.
D.C. Everest, at 1-3 at the midway point of the conference schedule, was in the same boat as the Lumberjacks.
And like East, the Evergreens won their last three games to finish 4-3 in the VFA North Division and will face Bay Port in the first round of the playoffs.
“This is like playoff game No. 4 for us,” Everest coach Luke Coenen said. “We want to continue to play like we’re a desperate team and a team that is not supposed to win. We’re going to go out and try to beat another team we’re not supposed to beat.”
Still, there is something to be said for clinching a playoff berth with several weeks left in the season.
Perhaps that can mean resting some of players who are nursing some bumps and bruises or fine-tuning some schemes on either side of the football.
Perennial power Stratford and last year’s Division 7 state champs, Greenwood/Granton, both notched enough conference wins early in the season, but both face the same dilemma in the first round: Playing a conference rival in the playoffs.
Stratford (6-2), which won six straight state crowns from 2003 to 2008, has a repeat of Week 8, when Auburndale returns to Stratford for a Level 1 game.
“The biggest thing we have to guard against is complacency from our coaching staff and kids,” said coach Cal Tackes, whose Tigers beat Auburndale 50-20 last Friday. “That was a close game at the half, and we need to remember that, not what the final score was.
“We’ve had a good week of practice and the playoffs is always a very exciting time of the year,” added Tackes, who is stepping down after the season.
Greenwood/Granton (5-3) is facing Loyal (7-1). The Greyhounds beat the defending champs 13-6 during Week 3 of the regular season.
“It’s always difficult to play a conference opponent in the playoffs because you know each other so well and it’s especially (tough) when you lose the first time,” G/G coach Jeff Trunkel said. “We’ve cut down on mistakes and everyone is used to each other and we’re playing well.”
Nekoosa (5-3), the undefeated South Central Conference champions, dropped all three nonconference games but stormed through its conference schedule to reach the playoffs and will host New Glarus/Monticello, a team it has never faced.
“We prepare for everyone the same, and I know they’re a Wing-T team like us, so that helps us out, but it can also help them as well,” Nekoosa coach Scott Hilber said. “We have a lot of guys who have been in the playoffs before and this time of year, the best team usually wins.”