LITTLE CHUTE, Wis. — Even a convincing playoff-clinching win couldn’t overshadow the love that the Little Chute football team, students and fans showed for Noah VanVooren.
VanVooren, a popular senior who has Down syndrome, suited up in pads and a helmet for the game. He served as a captain and led the team out of the locker room to the field.
His biggest moment, though, came at the end of the Mustangs’ 62-0 win over Clintonville on Friday night at Fitzpatrick Field.
PHOTOS: VanVooren's big night
With 1.2 seconds on the clock, Little Chute called time out. As the crowd chanted, “Noah! Noah!” VanVooren jogged onto the field and lined up alongside quarterback Sam Merryfield.
VanVooren took the handoff from Merryfield and ran around right end 35 yards into the end zone, spiking the football before his teammates swarmed him.
“It was great seeing him out there,” Mustangs senior linebacker Max Keyzers said. “He’s always been the motivator for our team. He talks after every game. It was great to hear the crowd chanting and it was great to get him the ball.”
VanVooren then led the team in the singing of the school song and stood beside coach Brian Ryczkowski as he helped lead the postgame huddle.
“I thought maybe Noah would be nervous,” Ryczkowski told the team.
“A little bit,” VanVooren quickly added.
VanVooren finished off the huddle with some instructions for the team’s upcoming scouting session.
“Good job, guys! Monday, be here! Auditorium!” VanVooren said.
Then it was time to accept hugs from his uncle and a group of classmates on the field.
The idea for VanVooren’s touchdown came from a group of Little Chute seniors, who told an assistant coach. From there, it got the approval of Clintonville and the game officials.
“A lot of credit for Clintonville for being a class act,” Ryczkowski said.
VanVooren is a manager for the football team, and if you’ve been to a Little Chute basketball game, you’ve probably seen him standing behind the baseline, leading the Mustangs’ student section in cheers.
“He’s always our biggest fan, so it’s always nice to see him,” said senior Tyler Zak, who ran for three touchdowns. “He’s always there with us.”
Ryczkowski said VanVooren was bugging him in the third quarter to go into the game. The senior kept asking teammates to adjust his helmet and either tighten or loosen his chinstrap.
Friday’s scene impressed Ryczkowski, Little Chute’s first-year coach.
“Things like that really bring the school together,” Ryczkowski said. “It lets you know you’ve got good people in the school and the town and they’re doing things right.”
Friday’s game was over quickly. Little Chute scored on seven straight possessions in the first half and added a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown by Bryce Zdanovec to take a 56-0 lead against an undermanned Truckers team.
In the process, quarterback Sam Merryfield and receiver Scott Hietpas broke school single-season records for most completions and most receptions, respectively.
The Mustangs (6-3 overall, 5-3 conference) could have advanced to the WIAA playoffs with a loss to either Berlin or Clintonville the last two weeks, but they didn’t want to wonder if they were in our out. Friday’s win made it official.
“Our playoffs started last week,” Ryczkowski said. “We told the players that our playoffs started against Berlin. We needed two (wins) to get in. We weren’t taking any chances. This is round two for us.”
The only losses this year for Little Chute, which also made the playoffs last year, have been to Eastern Valley Conference powers Waupaca, Xavier and Freedom.
“It feels good,” Ryczkowski said of clinching a playoff berth. “We could have won a couple more this year. Hopefully, that keeps us hungry.”
Joe Matzek also writes for Post-Cresent Media.