For the majority of teams playing in Madison this week, there was likely an inkling early on in the season that being a state finalist was a possibility.
Whether it was an undefeated start or a stretch of dominating wins in the early-season games, it often doesn’t take long for a team to realize when it is on the verge of something special.
Winneconne was not one of those teams.
The Wolves were shut out by Freedom in their season-opener, lost a hard-fought rivalry game to Omro in Week 2 and then surrendered 34 points to Waupaca in their third game of the season to drop to 0-3. Not necessarily the stuff championship dreams are made of.
“No,” Winneconne coach Clint Peters said when asked if he thought a state final was in the team’s future after the 0-3 start. “And when we were 2-5, I didn’t think a trip to Madison was in our future. But we’re here now and we’re not going to be satisfied with anything but the gold.”
Winneconne (8-5) will go in search of the first state football title in school history when it faces off against Platteville (9-4) in the WIAA Division 4 title game at 7 p.m. today at Camp Randall Stadium.
“It still hasn’t hit me,” senior lineman Brett Kramer said. “It’s so surreal that a town like Winneconne is finally making their name in state football. It’s awesome.”
Since that 2-5 start, though, Winneconne has been playing as well as any team that will take to the turf at Camp Randall this week.
The Wolves have rattled off six straight wins, knocked off the defending Division 4 state champion and have allowed just one touchdown in the first half in their four playoff wins. The team has scored four defensive touchdowns, blocked a punt for a safety and put together key scoring drives immediately after falling behind both Nekoosa and Somerset in the last two rounds.
The three losses to start the season are a distant memory.
“Nobody expected us to be here,” senior Riley Kallas said. “That first playoff game we made a statement and ever since then we’ve been rolling and we don’t expect to stop.”
The fact that Winneconne has made the state title game after the start it had is surprising enough. But the fact the Wolves will be facing a team in Platteville that has taken a very similar route to Madison, well it’s almost a pair of Cinderella stories.
The Hillmen won their season-opener but then suffered three straight losses to fall to 1-3. They finished with a 4-4 record in conference play, in the middle of the pack in the Southwestern Conference and knocked off perennial state powers Big Foot and Brodhead-Juda to reach the state semifinals, where the Hillmen took down an undefeated Roncalli squad, 22-15.
“Their story to get here is similar to ours,” Peters said. “We’re still the underdog, without question and we like that.”
Two teams with a combined nine losses have never played for a state championship. In fact, since the WIAA started sponsoring football championships in 1976, only seven teams have made title game with at least four losses — and two of them are Winneconne and Platteville — and the most combined losses between state title foes has been six, which has happened four times.
The winner will be the first team with more than three losses to claim a state title, since teams with at least three losses entering the state championship games are a combined 1-17 since 1976.
Winneconne knows that outsiders looking at its record may discount the quality of the Wolves’ team. If Platteville does, that would be a huge advantage for Winneconne, since the Wolves certainly aren’t looking at the Hillmen’s record and expecting an easy game.
“Now that we’re at state, we’re just throwing the records out,” senior Mitchel Fenrich said. “We just have to be the better team.”
The Hillmen are led offensively by tailback William Cooley, who has rushed for 1,770 yards and 23 touchdowns this season and is averaging more than 136 yards on the ground per game.
The next highest total for a running back is Jacob Bernhardt’s 483 yards.
Quarterback Logan Butson has thrown for nearly 1,600 yards and 17 touchdowns, while he has been intercepted just seven times this year.
“We know that Platteville is a great team. We have to stop their run game and have to stop their play-action pass,” senior Alex Ford said. “I think we’re really confident. We’re working together very well and we just need to keep going.”
Defensively, Platteville has allowed just 38 points in four postseason games and allowed more than 21 points just once in its last nine games.
“They’re a great defense,” Fenrich said. “They are going to hit us in the mouth and we’re going to have to stand up and respond to it.”
Sophomore Mitchell Markert has emerged as the Wolves’ top threat on the ground with Ben Davis having missed the last three games because of injury, while Fenrich has stepped up the Wolves’ passing game in the postseason with his top targets being Kallas and Peter Buyeske.
But as well as Winneconne can play offensively, it really comes down to the other side of the ball when talking about the Wolves’ success.
“Our defense (is going to be key). Just like every other week,” senior Cooper Goss said.
Another strong effort by that unit and another win by the team would be the perfect cap to this unlikely playoff run for the Wolves, who would go down as one of the most unexpected state champions in WIAA history.
“We’ve been going to watch the past couple of years and it’s really cool to be actually be there to play this year,” Goss said. “It’s a still like a dream to me. I know a lot of players out there, it hasn’t quite hit us yet that we’re actually at state. It feels great.”