MADISON, Wis. – Another championship game. Another deficit. Another impressive comeback.
That’s been par for the course for the Kimberly football team the past two seasons and the Papermakers’ 27-7 victory over Sun Prairie in Friday’s WIAA Division 1 state championship game was no different.
Kimberly (14-0) extended the nation’s longest winning streak to 70 games and captured its fifth consecutive gold ball by scoring 27 unanswered points after falling behind 7-0 early in the first quarter at Camp Randall Stadium.
It happened before. The Papermakers rallied from a 42-21 deficit to win the state title 49-42 in 2015 over Arrowhead, then bounced back from a 14-0 hole against Franklin before upending the Sabers 29-14 last season.
On Friday, the Papermakers made the adjustments they needed to get the win. Kimberly head coach Steve Jones said one of team’s strengths is its ability to absorb those suggestions from the coaching staff and implement them on the field in a short period of time.
“I give credit to our entire coaching staff,” Jones said. “They did a great job of making adjustments. Our kids do a great job of, year-in and year-out and week-in and week-out, of taking the coaching and being able to adjust on the fly.”
Kimberly found itself down 7-0 early, with the Cardinals taking advantage of a fumble and converting it into an 18-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Jack Zander to receiver Cooper Nelson in the corner of the end zone.
The Papermakers stumbled early, with their first five possessions producing four punts and the fumble.
Kimberly finally regained its swagger late in the first half, with DJ Stewart ripping off a 52-yard run to put the Papermakers in Sun Prairie territory and set up their first score.
John Nett finished the drive with a sensational 25-yard TD run in which the junior back spun out of trouble at the line of scrimmage, regained his balance and powered in for the touchdown to tie the game.
That momentum carried over into the second half, with quarterback Alec Rosner breaking off a 50-yard touchdown run to give the Papermakers a 14-7 lead.
Rosner struggled to get the passing game going, but showed that he could beat a team with his feet too as he faked a jet sweep handoff to Stewart and followed two outstanding blocks to the left side of the formation untouched to the end zone.
“It was great play design,” Rosner said. “Our coaching staff did a great job. It was one of our top run plays this week, and we repped it a lot in practice. When they called the play, I knew we had a lot of confidence in it and knew that it should work out.”
Drew VanderMissen’s interception on the ensuing Sun Prairie drive continued to sway momentum to Kimberly as Sun Prairie struggled to find consistency.
It wasn’t due to a lack of opportunities. Zander tried to take advantage of the Cardinals’ height advantage at receiver by attacking Kimberly defensive backs Drew Lechnir and Zach Olson, but both players showed heart in battling receivers six to seven inches taller than themselves.
Sun Prairie (13-1) didn’t help itself with overthrows and dropped passes short-circuiting potential scoring drives.
Rosner said he and his teammates put their trust in the coaching staff.
“We knew they were going to put us in the best position to win,” he said. “At halftime, we didn’t have a different message. It was just keep playing Maker football and if we did that, the scoreboard will take care of itself.”
Stewart put the game out of reach with touchdown runs of 25 and 3 yards over the final 13 plus minutes.The 6-foot, 172-pound senior finished with 189 yards on 32 carries after rushing for more than 200 yards in his previous three games.
Kimberly totaled 355 rushing yards on 49 carries and also won the time of possession battle 28:23 to 19:37. Rosner added 90 yards rushing, with Nett chipping in 76.
The Papermakers weathered one of the toughest schedules in the state. Kimberly’s first seven wins came against teams that would eventually make the playoffs.
There were close victories over Fond du Lac (35-28), Stevens Point (28-18), Neenah (15-8) and Appleton North (38-31) during the regular season, but the postseason is where Kimberly raised its play.
The Papermakers routed Milwaukee Riverside/Golda Meier 49-8 in the playoff opener, whipped Marquette (49-33) in the second round before outlasting rematches with Fond du Lac (28-21) and Appleton North (31-14) in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
The journey to the fifth consecutive championship – and seventh overall – was a satisfying one for Jones, who improved his overall record with the Papermakers to 87-4.
Kimberly (14-0) hasn’t lost since Nov. 2, 2012, when it suffered a 31-7 defeat to Arrowhead in the state quarterfinals.
“We came in very inexperienced at the beginning of the year,” Jones said. “And to see them evolve as a group and as a team – to see them grow – has been unbelievable experience for me as a coach.”