Amherst falls to Stratford in State Semifinals
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
In a battle of the top-ranked teams in Division 5, the Amherst High School football team was unable to hold onto a second-half lead against top-ranked Stratford, as its run came to an end in the State Semifinals Friday, Nov. 15.
The second-ranked Falcons (11-1) snapped Stratford’s state-record shutout streak with a third-quarter touchdown to take a 7-6 lead, but Stratford (13-0) came back with a touchdown on the next possession and added a late score to advance to the WIAA Division 5 State Championship Game with a 19-7 win at Stiehm Stadium in Schofield.
“They made two or three more plays,” said Amherst football head coach Mark Lusic. “The hardest part was, we couldn’t get off the field on second and 20, fourth and 11.
“We never got the ball back in the fourth quarter, we threw a pick, I took a shot, it was 12-7, and we never got the ball back,” he said. “And that was it.”
Amherst and Stratford squared off in the Level 4 Playoffs Friday night, after reigning Division 5 State Runner-up Stratford set a state record with 12 consecutive shutouts to start this season, as it outscored its opponents by a 630-0 margin along the way.
Stratford scored on the opening possession of the game Friday, as it capped a 17-play drive that ran 8:47 off clock with a two-yard touchdown run from senior quarterback Max Schwabe with 3:13 left in the first quarter, and led 6-0 after Amherst senior defensive end Dylan Pacocha deflected the two-point conversion pass.
“They grind on you, you can see how they can control the clock,” said Lusic of Stratford, whose offensive line includes University of Wisconsin recruit and two-time First Team All-State senior offensive tackle Ben Barten. “They’re big up front, and they’re a tough team.”
The Falcons went three-and-out on their first possession, and after forcing a Stratford punt, they took over at their own 11-yard line, when senior quarterback Lincoln Cullen threw a 33-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Ian Hall to give Amherst the ball at its own 44-yard line.
The Falcons’ drive eventually stalled out there and ended with a punt, and after another Stratford punt, Amherst took over at its own six-yard line with 1:19 to go in the second quarter and ran out the rest of the clock, as it went into halftime down 6-0.
“I felt pretty good at 6-0,” said Lusic, whose team ran 13 plays on offense in the first half. “The way they grinded us out and stuck it in there (on the first drive), I was just happy to go in at 6-0.
“And I knew we were getting the ball back to start the second half,” he said.
On the opening possession of the second half, the Falcons faced fourth down and one from their own 46-yard line, when senior Aidan Elwood took the direct snap as an up back and ran six yards to pick up a first down on the fake punt.
That set up a 37-yard touchdown pass from Cullen to junior wide receiver Carmelo Aleman with 6:28 to play in the third-quarter to break Stratford’s shutout streak, and senior Mason Czech followed with the extra-point kick to give Amherst a 7-6 lead.
“He just went up and got it,” said Lusic. “It was a three-route, one of our best players, I felt confident, and we had to take some shots.
“We took one and he made a play, and that’s all you can ask for,” he said.
On the ensuing possession, Stratford used a 52-yard pass to reach the Amherst 23-yard line, but faced fourth down and 11 from the 24-yard line, when it completed a 13-yard pass to the Amherst 11-yard line with 4:00 left in the third quarter.
Stratford later converted a third down and two to put the ball at the Amherst one-yard line, and scored on a one-yard touchdown run from junior fullback Beau Gross to take a 12-7 lead with 1:50 to go in the third-quarter after the two-point conversion pass fell incomplete.
“We made an adjustment, in the second half they had a hard time moving,” said Lusic. “But the key part was, we scored that touchdown to go up 7-6, and they went right down the field and stuck it back in.
“The fourth and 11 killed us,” he said. “We had a shot there, we had the lead at the time, and that broke our back, and then they scored.”
Following an Amherst punt, the Falcons’ defense stopped Stratford on fourth down and two to take over at the 50-yard line with 10:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, but on the second play of the ensuing drive, Cullen’s pass to Aleman was intercepted at the Stratford 19-yard line.
Stratford converted a pair of third downs to keep its next drive going, before it used a 36-yard run from senior running back Teddy Redman to get to the Amherst 23-yard line with 5:20 to go.
A personal foul for an illegal block below the waist on the Amherst defense gave Stratford the ball at the nine-yard line, and Schwabe scored on an eight-yard touchdown with 2:26 left to give Stratford a 19-7 lead after the extra-point kick.
“Even at 12-7, I felt OK, but we threw the pick and we couldn’t get the ball back, and they just wore on us and wore on us and they wore on us, and they finally stuck it in,” said Lusic. “That’s how they defeat opponents, they just wear on you.”
Stratford recovered an Amherst fumble on the ensuing kickoff and was able to run out the rest of the clock to win 19-7 and advance to the State Championship Game, where it will take on fourth-ranked Lake Country Lutheran (12-1) at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison at 4 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21.
“We battled,” said Lusic. “I could sit here and tell you all of the clichés, but there are no moral victories.
“Yeah we fought hard, yeah we played well, I am proud of that, I am proud that we gave them everything we had,” he said. “We just came up short. We didn’t make enough plays, and they did.”
Gross rushed for 81 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries, Redman had 73 yards rushing on 10 carries, and Schwabe rushed for 17 yards and two touchdowns on five carries and completed 9-of-12 passes for 100 yards, with zero touchdowns and zero interceptions, to lead Stratford.
Senior running back/wide receiver Chris Andersen rushed for 42 yards on eight carries, and Cullen rushed for 20 yards on four carries and completed 4-of-9 passes for 77 yards, with one touchdown and one interception, to lead the Falcons against the Stratford defense, which features three First Team Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) Small School All-State selections in senior inside linebacker Justin Schoenherr, senior defensive end Jaykob Mikelson and Barten, who was the WFCA Small School State Defensive Player of the Year.
“We just couldn’t get enough big plays, and we couldn’t run the ball, which I knew we’d have a hard time with,” said Lusic. “That’s what they do, they just put those guys up front, and they’re hard to move.
“They’ve got a nice team, that quarterback threw some nice balls,” he said. “And when they can throw it and run it, they’re a tough team to beat.”
The loss ended a run this season that saw Amherst win the Central Wisconsin Conference (CWC)-Large Title for the seventh time in nine years and advance to the State Semifinals for the seventh time in eight years.
“It feels like a long season, and then all of a sudden you look back right now, and it’s all over, and it’s like it went by in the blink of an eye,” said Lusic. “We won a Conference Title, that was one of our goals, we just didn’t reach the top. That’s what we wanted, but we didn’t make it.
“It was a good group of seniors, they really turned the corner in January, they really started to step up and understood what it took to win, and I’m proud of them,” he said. “We were playing like a Championship-level team, and we just came up a little short.”