When the WIAA Division 6 football playoff bracket was released about a month ago, it was the matchup many expected to see in Madison come Nov. 19.
Even though one team was a No. 3 seed and the other a top seed. Even though each had massive amounts of talent to replace from last year’s squads. Even though the road to Camp Randall Stadium was treacherous on both paths.
This was the game that seemed destined from the start.
St. Mary’s Springs vs. Darlington, the rematch.
The Ledgers will be going for their second straight state championship. The Redbirds will be going for revenge.
Last year, St. Mary’s Springs held off Darlington 37-28 in a thrilling back-and-forth game to win its fifth WIAA state title. When the Ledgers take on the Redbirds on Thursday afternoon in the WIAA Division 6 state championship, they’ll need to defeat a team that is itching for its first state title since 1995 and retribution after last year’s defeat.
Although both St. Mary’s Springs (11-2) and Darlington (13-0) each graduated many skilled players from last year’s squads, they’re both back in the state championship game — the ninth appearance for the Ledgers and 11th for the Redbirds — a testament to the quality of the two programs.
“I’m a little bit surprised at Darlington and us,” St. Mary’s Springs coach Bob Hyland said. “Both of us graduated as much as we did, and we’re still both back where we always want to be.”
Darlington, champions of the Southwest Wisconsin Activities League, cruised into the D6 state championship with dominating wins over Pardeeville (42-0), Mineral Point (55-28), Cambridge (28-7) and Melrose-Mindoro (42-12).
Operating primarily out of the Wing T formation on offense, the Redbirds put up some monster numbers on the scoreboard this season, averaging 45 points per game.
Leading rusher Hunter Johnson has 2,246 yards rushing and 40 touchdowns, while Trevor Johnson (1,137 yards, 14 TD) and Conrad Blosch (1,047 yards, 8 TD) are also capable backs who’ve gashed teams throughout the season. While he doesn’t throw it much, quarterback Jared Meister has 843 yards passing and 11 touchdowns — a threat that prevents opposing teams from focusing solely on the run.
“Johnson has the bulk of their carries, but they have three backs that have rushed for over 1,000 yards, so you can’t key on any one,” Hyland said. “But (Johnson) is the one you have to stop. He’s their breakaway guy.”
Over the second half of the season, St. Mary’s Springs’ defense has risen to the challenge, allowing only 56 points since a 37-20 loss to Omro in late September. But Darlington will probably provide the largest threat to that unit since the Foxes and the Ledgers will need to step up.
“I think our defensive line will need to step up and fill the holes that they’re supposed to, take on double teams,” Springs senior Kurt Mueller said. “The linebackers will need to string out the plays and finish off the tackles.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Darlington gives up a little over 13 points per game but has had a few problems throughout the year — allowing 28 points to Mineral Point in a playoff game and 32 to Fennimore during the regular season.
With the emergence of junior running back Fintan Floyd, St. Mary’s Springs has developed a powerful rushing game — compiling over 1,100 yards in the playoffs. Floyd has 1,421 yards and 23 TDs on the season, while quarterback Blake Bauer is certainly capable of passing the ball with 1,507 yards and 12 TDs.
However, the Ledgers will have to adjust to the loss of leading receiver Tyler Wiza, who injured his leg in last Saturday’s Level 4 win over Grantsburg and has been ruled out for Thursday’s game. Wiza led Springs with 46 catches for 757 yards and 7 TDs and was also the punt returner and a key defender.
“I don’t think it affects the passing game as much as it does our defense and return game,” Hyland said. “He’s our punt returner. He’s our holder. He’s an all-conference safety. He’s one that has saved us many, many times on plays that were ready to go for touchdowns. That’s where I think we’re going to get hurt by Tyler’s absence. You can’t dwell on it, so it’s next man up.”
While many of the starters on this year’s St. Mary’s Springs team played sparingly or not at all on last season’s state champion unit, Hyland expects his squad to be ready for the moment on Thursday. Having qualified for state in six of the past seven seasons, the players in the program know the expectation every year and are prepared when their time comes.
“I asked [Sunday] night if the Knights of Columbus [building] is reserved for a party afterward, and they said ‘Yeah, we did that in July,’” Hyland laughed. “You can see right there what people expect of us. … My expectations are the same. I expect us to be challenging in the semifinals every year, and we did and now we’re in the finals. As the season went on, we worked our tail off to make them better football players.”
Sam Oleson: (920) 907-7930, email@example.com or follow on Twitter @sam_olesonFDL
WIAA Division 6 State Championship
•St. Mary’s Springs (11-2) vs. Darlington (13-0)
•Thursday, 1:05 p.m.
•At Camp Randall Stadium, Madison
•TV: Fox Sports Wisconsin
Record: 13-0 (7-0 in Southwest Wisconsin Activities League)
Head coach: Scott Zywicki, 11th season
Playoff road: def. Pardeeville, 42-0; def. Mineral Point, 55-28; def. Cambridge, 28-7; def. Melrose-Mindoro, 42-12.
WIAA Playoff Appearances: 27 (7 straight)
WIAA Playoff Record: 66-22, .750 winning percentage
WIAA State Championships: 4 (1987, 1990, 1991, 1995).
WIAA State Runner-ups: 6 (1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2013, 2014).
Rushing (att-yards-avg-TDs): Hunter Johnson 187-2,246-12.0-40; Trevor Johnson 115-1,137-9.9-14; Conrad Blosch 151-1,047-6.9-8.
Passing (com-att-yds-int-td): Jared Meister 32-60-843-5-11.
Receiving (rec-yds-TDs): Trevor Johnson 13-426-8; Hunter Johnson 9-255-2.
Kicking (fgm/fga-patm/pata-tp): Chad Golackson 3/3-51/63-60.
Scoring average: 45.2 points per game.
Tackles (solo-assist-total): Hayden Hardyman 27-55-82, Jesse Sturtz 31-38-69, Jared Meister 28-35-63, Hunter Johnson 26-17-43, Taylor Evenstad 21-20-41.
Sacks: Taylor Evenstad 4, Josh Weaver 2, Hayden Hardyman 1.
Interceptions: Brayden McDonald 9, Trevor Johnson 6, Hunter Johnson 3.
Defensive average: 13.3 points per game
St. Mary’s Springs Ledgers
Record: 11-2 (5-1 in Flyway Conference)
Head coach: Bob Hyland, 45th season
Playoff road: def. Shiocton, 41-6; def. Iola-Scandinavia, 28-21; def. Edgar, 14-6; def. Granstburg, 34-7.
WIAA Playoff Appearances: 14 (8 straight)
WIAA Playoff Record: 56-8, .875 winning percentage
WIAA State Championships: 5 (2002, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014).
WIAA State Runner-ups: 3 (2003, 2005, 2010).
Rushing (att-yards-avg-TDs): Fintan Floyd 185-1,421-7.7-23, Sam Spranger 83-580-7.0-6, Clay Schueffneer 74-470-6.4-8.
Passing (com-att-yds-int-td): Blake Bauer 86-145-1,507-5-12; Mitch Waechter 13-30-205-2-0.
Receiving (rec-yds-TDs): Tyler Wiza 47-756-7; Joshua Moul 20-337-2; Blake Ottery 9-193-1.
Kicking (fgm/fga-patm/pata-tp): Blake Ottery 0/0-45-49-45.
Scoring average: 37.4 points per game.
Tackles (solo-assist-total): Clay Schueffner 22-112-134, Sam Spranger 19-59-78, Zach Austin 20-47-67, Michael Buetow 8-50-58, Blake Ottery 17-43-60.
Sacks: Blake Ottery 7.5, Michael Buetow 5.5, Samuel Spranger 1.5.
Interceptions: Tyler Wiza 5, Josh Moul 3, Blake Ottery 3, Noah Boehnlein 3.
Defensive average: 13.9 points per game