When in doubt, trust your players.
And that's exactly what veteran, state championship-winning Hall of Fame coach Dave Keel did Thursday night, as with his offense stuck in reverse in the first half (15 plays for just 26 yards) against archrival Germantown, the Highlanders needed a jump-start after a 0-0 first two quarters.
"The kids made a couple of suggestions," Keel said. "They said the sweep might be open and then Jay (running back) Schneider went and made us look like geniuses."
That he did.
Because Schneider took the ball on the first play of the second half from his own 19-yard line on that very sweep call.
He broke one arm tackle, juked another defender ("I did a little shake n' bake on him," he chuckled afterward) and found himself in the clear for a throat-clearing, 81-yard offensive statement of a touchdown run that launched the Highlanders to a stunning 28-7 victory over the Warhawks.
The win secured the Highlanders of at least a share of their 12th straight North Shore Conference title.
"The play of the defense (in the first half) had been very motivating to me," said Schneider. "We didn't say a lot at halftime (about the first half frustrations). We kept to our groups and talked about doing our parts.
"...That play said that the offense was ready to play. That Homestead was not ready to go away anytime soon."
Schneider's run was the start of a spectacular first three minutes of the third quarter for the Highlanders, as on Homestead's second play of the half, quarterback Nick Allen hit a wide open Jabree Washington on a circle route and Washington sailed in for an easy 41-yard TD.
And just three plays later, after Allen had hit back Shaquille Cole with a 41-yard pass to the Germantown 2-yard line, Allen called his own number on an option and scored easily.
It was a stunning turn of events, as after 24 minutes of doing virtually nothing, Homestead, in the space of 6:04, had gained 164 yards in just five plays and scored three TDs in the process.
The Highlanders were ahead 21-0 and would never be challenged again, as Homestead (6-1, 7-1) earned the right to be called champion. Whitefish Bay (5-1, 6-1), which beat the Highlanders, 14-7, last Friday, can clinch a share of the title on Friday when it visits Nicolet (2-5).
Homestead's win was vengeance for two defeats in a row to Germantown, including a searing thumping in the regular season closer last year.
"We didn't talk about that a lot," said senior defensive back Riley Pelisek who was all over the field this night. "Our attitude is that last season is last season. It's a different team with different personnel, so we had to move on."
That became fully evident in the second half as Homestead displayed more of the Highlander football that Keel had been used to seeing for the better part of the last two decades.
"We had to get that ugly taste of defeat out of our mouths," he said, "and the only way to do that was to get right back at it. Get right back on the field."
His defense was on the field in spades all night as Gemantown (5-2, 6-2) had knocked on the door three times in the first half, getting the ball to the Homestead 24, 23 and 25-yard lines on three spearate possessions.
Each time the Warhawks were turned back, mostly with the help of a relentless Highlander defensive front. Sophomore lineman David Pfaff got the honors the first time, smacking Warhawk quarterback Dwayne Lawhorn Jr., hard up the middle on a bull rush, forcing a fumble and a 12-yard loss on a third-down play.
That was an ignominious end to a promising opening drive for Germantown. The effort had consumed 12 plays but after that fumble, the Warhawks were forced to punt.
On the second series, the Homestead defense rose again as the Warhawks had gotten great field position on a short punt at the Highlander 45.
But on a fourth and six play from the Homestead 23, Warhawk coach Jake Davis eschewed the field goal and a deep Lawhorn pass to the front of the corner of the end zone was incomplete.
The Warhawk sideline howled for an apparent interference penalty on the play, but no call was forthcoming.
The Germantown defense gave the Warhawk offense one more chance as defensive back Tyler Palzkill snagged an errant Allen pass with just 49 seconds left in the half and returned it to the Highlander 25.
But after two incompletitions, Highlander senior lineman Ryan Stendler flew up the middle and crushed Lawhorn for a 10-yard loss. Lawhorn's half-ending desperation bomb to the corner then fell incomplete as the hard-working Highlander defense had given the team a chance.
Part of the incentive was that this group didn't want to be the team that saw the long run of conference championships come to an end, especially after the tough loss to Bay.
"The whole week the attitude had been focus and fight," said Pelisek. "We let a couple of plays get away from us last week, but tonight we just handled our assignments and played hard."
The offense could especially take pride in its second half. Germantown closed the gap to 21-7 early in the fourth quarter on a 20-yard Mason Yahr to Nick Holcomb touchdown pass.
Yahr had come in a bit earlier after Lawhorn had been injured on a 36-yard run that set up the Warhawks' only score.
But the Homestead offense, which would pound out an impressive 244 total yards in the second half, had an answer. It came right back with an eight-play 49-yard drive as Schneider keyed the effort by going 13 yards on a fourth and four play. Cole then scored from three yards out to put things away with 6:12 to go.
Schneider finished with 108 yards rushing on just six carries.
"We'd been tired of what had been going on (in the first half)," said Schneider. "We knew we had to get out there and do what we had been doing successfully all season."
Allen completed only two passes but they went for 82 yards. Meanwhile the Highlander defense harried the normally effective Lawhorn into a discouraging six of 24 night for only 61 yards, Yahr had the same number of yards on four of six attempts as Tyler Baran rushed for 72 yards on 23 carries for the Warhawks.
Germantown would have only 92 yards rushing on 33 attempts.
"I was very pleased with the way we came out and played in the second half," said Keel. "We couldn't get it going in the first half, but the defense was merely spectacular. We overcame my poor play-calling in the first half because we just kept battling."
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