KIMBERLY – They have been the hunted since Day 1 of the Wisconsin high school football season, but the Kimberly Papermakers remain the beast that no one has been able to bring down.
Arrowhead will take another crack at them today, and the 12-1 Warhawks have the full respect of the two-time defending champion Papermakers.
But the 13-0 Papermakers are treating the pursuit of the program’s fifth gold ball like it was their first, and are a hungry bunch that doesn’t live in the past.
“I think I’m more excited this year than nervous,” said Blair Mulholland, Kimberly’s game-breaking running back, who played a key role on the last two state championship teams. “Every year is a different year, and it’s a lot different for me in that I’m more of a leader compared to previous years where I was kind of a quiet underclassman. It’s a different feel. I’m just trying to make sure that everyone is mentally prepared for this.”
If Kimberly can pull off the three-peat, it might go down as one of the most satisfying state titles for the program, considering the Papermakers had to retool on the fly after losing 18 starters to graduation. Instead of living on its reputation, Kimberly has consistently played like a team with something to prove.
“It (a state title) would be amazing, being that we’re the senior class that everyone doubted,” said Mulholland, who leads the state in rushing yards (2,672) and touchdowns (43). “To reload with so many new starters and get back to the state championship, that’s insane.”
If Kimberly prevails in a rematch of last year’s Division 1 state championship teams, it would be the first time in program history that the Papermakers have won three consecutive state titles.
“Coming into the year, we were doubted a lot,” said senior defensive back Bailey Marasch. “People were saying, ‘They’ve got 11 new starters (on defense). They’re not going to do a thing.’
“People doubted that we were going to go undefeated, which we did. They doubted that we’d make it deep into the playoffs, which we did. We’re just real excited to be proving people wrong. It’s a great feeling.”
Kimberly takes a remarkable 41-game winning streak into the state championship and will likely be the favorite. But if the Papermakers are feeling any pressure, they’re hiding it like a well-disguised blitz.
“I guess you have that streak in the back of your mind, so there’s pressure,” said Kimberly quarterback Danny Vanden Boom. “But once you get into the game and start playing football, it’s the same game we’ve been playing since we were little kids. There’s really no pressure once you hit the football field.”
With so many first-year starters, the state championship game will be a new experience for many Kimberly players. But for the coaching staff, it’s the same old drill, even though it will never feel that way to head coach Steve Jones and his highly regarded staff.
“It never get old — going Camp Randall is a really exciting time for everyone, the kids, the community and the coaches,” said Jones. “There are a lot of really good programs, coaches and players that never get a chance to do this.”
Kimberly pounded the Warhawks 31-6 in last year’s Division 1 state championship and the Papermakers will be looking for similar results. But Kimberly might have play for the title without two key starters. Jordan Janssen, Kimberly’s outstanding receiver, sustained a shoulder injury in Kimberly’s 49-20 state semifinal win over Marquette and may be unavailable. Offensive lineman Alec Roehrig is also iffy with an ankle injury.
Janssen is a major weapon and would definitely be missed. He was selected to the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association all-state first team and leads the state in receiving yards at 1,388. Janssen has 60 catches along with 15 touchdowns, and is averaging a whopping 23.0 yards per catch.
“With Jordan Janssen, you’re talking about a first-team all-state player and any time you lose a kid like that, it’s a big deal,” said Jones. “But we don’t make excuses in our program. We have a next-man-up mentality. Other kids have to be prepared to step in and everybody around them has to step up.
“We’ve had other injuries like this before. When Blair (Mulholland) was a sophomore, we lost an all-state running back in J.P. Peerenboom and Blair stepped in and took us through the playoffs.”
Juniors Tyler Verstegen (15 receptions, 192 yards), Tyler Bruss (six receptions, 114 yards) and senior Douglas Greeninger (seven catches, 74 yards) would play larger roles if Janssen can’t go. Senior Jordan Ries, who replaced Roehrig against Marquette, would likely get the call if Roehrig can’t play.
“Both Jordan (Janssen) and Alec (Roehrig) want to play and are planning to play, but we’re just going to have to wait and see,” said Jones.
Like Kimberly, Arrowhead boasts one of finest prep football programs in the state. The Warhawks are a skilled team with quality playmakers in quarterback Johnny Duranso (1,531 yards passing, 17 touchdown passes, 802 rushing yards), running back Nick Bastien (950 rushing yards, 9 TDs) and wide receiver Tyler Jones (47 receptions, 540 yards, 6 TDs) and Justin Peret (38, 662 yards, 5 TDs).
“He (Duranso) is good at what he does and we’re going to have to stick on their receivers like glue,” said Marasch. “They’re a great team and so are we. I just think we have to be fundamentally sound. Up to this point, that’s been winning games for us: fundamentals.”
Arrowhead is led in the trenches by University of Michigan recruit Ben Bredeson, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound bulldozer.
“Bredeson is probably the best offensive lineman in the state,” said Jones. “He’s one of the top recruits in the country. He’s going to play for (Jim) Harbaugh. Their whole O-line is terrific and they have great playmakers offensively and defensively. I’ve watched a lot of film on them and they’re a fantastic team.
“They scare you offensively and defensively. They don’t give up the big play. Their defensive line is the best I’ve seen playing as a unit.”
The Warhawks also have an elite kicker in John Mack.
“He’s probably the best kicker in the state,” said Jones. “He’s a real weapon for them. This team has no holes.”
Still, the Papermakers have shredded everything in their path and should be able to match up well with the Warhawks.
“I’ve told our kids that we don’t have to play perfect, because that’s impossible,” said Jones. “We just have to play Kimberly football at a high level.”
Tim Froberg: 920-993-1000, ext. 423, or firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @twfroberg