MADISON — The Green Bay Notre Dame football team went undefeated in winning its first WIAA state championship in 2003.
But this year might have been the perfect season.
The No. 3 seed Tritons capped off a magical and perhaps improbable playoff run with a dramatic 19-17 win over No. 2 seed Waukesha Catholic Memorial in the D3 state championship game on Friday at Camp Randall Stadium.
A contest with so many twists and turns ended with the Tritons hoisting the gold ball after the Crusaders’ final drive was stopped on downs at the Notre Dame 48 in the final seconds.
Notre Dame (12-2) won its last seven games of the season, seemingly playing better with each passing week.
“This is amazing,” said Notre Dame coach John Nowak, who has led his team to two WIAA state titles and a WISAA championship in 25 seasons. “It was just a great effort by our kids.”
Nothing about this showdown made much sense, at least by the numbers.
Catholic Memorial (11-3) outgained Notre Dame 418-273 in total yards and had 22 first downs compared to 12 for the Tritons. It controlled the ground game with 235 yards and held Notre Dame to 76 after it lost star running back Nate Ihlenfeldt to a broken collarbone in the second quarter.
But a Notre Dame defense that has been opportunistic all season came up big again with four interceptions, which was one more than Memorial quarterback Alex Bray had thrown in the previous 13 games.
The third one came with just under 4 minutes remaining, and it saved Notre Dame’s season after it had fumbled on its own 3 with 4 minutes, 26 seconds remaining.
The Crusaders led 17-13 at that point and had a 2nd-and-goal at the 6, a state championship within in their grasp.
But that’s when Bray threw a pass in the end zone that was intercepted by junior linebacker Jack Drake for a touchback.
Notre Dame needed just three plays and 41 seconds to go 80 yards for the game-winning TD.
Senior quarterback Robert Petitjean connected with senior wide receiver Vinny Pallini on the first play for a 45-yard catch that at first looked like it might have been intercepted but was ruled a simultaneous possession.
Pallini rushed for 3 yards on the next play before Petitjean rolled to his left and threw a dart to junior receiver Johnny Santaga for a 32-yard TD.
Santaga lost the pass in the sun for a brief moment but no worries.
“It came back, and it was a perfect pass right in my hands,” Santaga said.
Notre Dame stopped the Crusaders’ next drive with another interception, this one by senior defensive lineman Alex Malcore that was returned 14 yards to the Memorial 11 with 1:51 remaining.
The Tritons couldn’t quite seal the deal, getting stuffed on 4th-and-1 at the 2 to give the Crusaders one final chance for a comeback.
Notre Dame had elected to go for the first and the win instead of giving Pallini, the best kicker in the area this season, a chance to put his team up by five and force Memorial to score a TD in the final 1:30.
“I went to put them away. We could have had the field goal,” Nowak said. “We had the play call. We just didn’t execute.”
It didn’t matter.
Memorial’s final drive ended on an incompletion eight plays later, and Notre Dame started celebrating its hard-earned title by running out the final 11 seconds.
Not everyone thought a championship was possible for the Tritons this season. It sure looked that way early on against the Crusaders.
They scored on their first two possessions after a 24-yard touchdown run by junior running back Jaylen Campbell and a 26-yard field goal from junior Eric Fridl made it 10-0 with 2:20 remaining in the first quarter.
It was a rough start for the Tritons, but then, they trailed in all four of their previous playoff games on the road to Madison and came back each time.
Why not one final one?
“We should start out every game down 10,” Nowak said. “Something like that. We’d win them all.”
Memorial had a chance to go up 17-0 in the opening minutes of the second quarter after converting on a 4th-and-1 at the Notre Dame 4, but an illegal formation penalty knocked it back 5 yards. It forced the Crusaders to attempt a field goal, but Fridl’s kick bounced off the upright.
The Tritons responded by going 58 yards on 10 plays and cutting their deficit to a touchdown after a 40-yard field goal from Pallini, although it was a costly drive after Ihlenfeldt was injured.
The junior running back, who entered with more than 1,700 rushing yards after missing last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, was taken to a local hospital and replaced by junior Liam Gerl.
“I told him when he left that we all felt for him, but we had to worry about taking care of business here,” Nowak said. “He’s got another year ahead of him. Hopefully, he can have a healthy year. The kid plays much bigger than his body. I think that catches up with him once in a while. He’s just a super athlete.”
Down one of their best players, another one of them stepped up.
Santaga made the play of the first half for the Tritons, intercepting a pass by Bray and returning it to the Memorial 10.
Petitjean found receiver Ryan O’Connell for a 12-yard TD two plays later to tie the game at 10 with 2:07 left in the second quarter.
O’Connell was all over the field the entire game. The junior caught two passes for 55 yards and had a game-high 14 tackles and an interception.
Still, it was a first half dominated by the Crusaders. They outgained Notre Dame in total yards 251-77 and had 13 first downs.
But it didn’t matter at that point. Or at the end.
It remains to be seen whether Nowak will retire after this win. He said he still wasn’t sure about his future when asked on Friday, but either way, his players were happy to give him and their school a championship for the first time in 12 years.
“It says a lot about our team and a lot about our coach,” Petitjean said. “It really comes back to him. He really challenges us. It’s not been just this year, it’s been all years I’ve been here.
“This team really came together as a team. That’s why we went so far.”
Notre Dame01036 – 19
Catholic Memorial10070 – 17
M – Jaylen Campbell 26 run (Eric Fridl kick).
M – Fridl 32 field goal.
ND – Vinny Pallini 40 field goal.
ND – Ryan O’Connell 12 pass from Robert Petitjean (Pallini kick).
ND – Pallini 35 field goal.
M – Max Cooper 29 pass from Alex Bray (Fridl kick).
ND – Johnny Santaga 32 pass from Petitjean (kick fail).
Rushing: ND — Liam Gerl 23-57; M — Jaylen Campbell 18-97.
Passing: ND — Petitjean 10-19-0-197; M — Bray 13-27-4-183.
Receiving: ND — Santaga 3-77; M — Fletcher Metz 5-72.