If Beau Ash didn’t have a reputation as a clutch performer, he does now.
The senior tailback kicked a 22-yard field goal Nov. 9 with 1:09 remaining to give Waupaca a 16-14 win over West De Pere in a Division 3 state semifinal football game at Papermaker Stadium in Kimberly.
If that wasn’t enough, his 92-yard touchdown run in the first quarter gave the Comets a 7-0 lead over the two-time defending state champions.
Waupaca (12-0) now moves on to the Division 3 state championship game against Catholic Memorial (10-2) at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 16, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. The Phantoms, on the other hand, saw their 39-game winning streak come to an end after winning state titles in 2010 and 2011.
“I told them last week that some teams have ‘it,'” coach John Koronkiewicz said. “‘It’ is hard to get. It’s hard to explain, but it’s the difference in big games. Once you get it, you try to keep it as long as you can. It resulted in a trip to Madison.
“Sometimes, you just get a feeling,” he said. “To be honest, I had a good feeling all week. I thought our guys were pretty focused and maybe a little underrated as far as the quality of our football team. I told the guys, ‘We don’t have to play them nine times, we just have to beat them once.’ We were able to do that this evening.”
It didn’t take Ash long to make his presence felt, as he gained 45 of his game-high 157 yards on Waupaca’s first play from scrimmage. The drive ended with an interception by West De Pere’s Chandler Diekvoss, but Waupaca’s defense held and forced a punt that pinned the Comets back at their own 8-yard line.
Ash found a hole through the Phantom defense and gave Waupaca a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
West De Pere answered Waupaca’s touchdown with 23 seconds to go in the first quarter on Matt DeBaker’s 87-yard touchdown pass to Connor Konshak and took a 14-7 lead on Zach Rothering’s 7-yard run with 10:06 remaining in the first half. Waupaca gave the Phantoms the ball at the Comet 16-yard line after a Sam Menzies fumble.
Kegan Wirtz’s extra point turned out to be the final point the Phantoms would score on the season.
Waupaca cut into West De Pere’s lead on Menzies’ 5-yard pass to Nate Nelson on fourth-and-2 with 31 seconds remaining in the third quarter. However, Semi Sago blocked Nelson’s extra point try and the Phantoms held on to a 14-13 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Phantoms, which came into the game averaging more than 45 points a game, turned the ball over on the downs four times in the second half.
“Bigger games require bigger performances,” Koronkiewicz said. “That’s when your players have to step up and make plays. There were numerous examples of that happening, from (Josh) Houtman’s interception to a key tackle on fourth down. To stop this team on fourth down is a credit to the guys up front.
“Defenses have to play great if you’re going to go anywhere in the playoffs,” he added. “If you take a look at our defense, they consistently got better and better as the season progressed. We had play after play after play. That was a big offensive front that they had in front of us and some quickness coming off the ball. We were probably outmanned 40, 50 pounds at times.”
One of those stops on fourth down gave Waupaca the ball at its own 35-yard line with 4:16 remaining.
Menzies hit all three of his passes on the drive, including a 21-yarder to Nelson that gave the Comets a first down at the West De Pere 10-yard line. Two runs by Menzies and one from Ash had Waupaca looking at a fourth-and-6.
Koronkiewicz decided to go with Ash, who hadn’t kicked a field goal in his four-year varsity career, over Nelson, the team’s regular kicker.
“Sometimes, you just have to let the senior have control of the game,” he said. “He was here in 2009 when we lost to West De Pere in a heartbreaker. Today, it was our time. That’s just the way it worked out.”
After Ash’s kick gave Waupaca the lead, West De Pere went to work without any time outs.
DeBaker drove the Phantoms from their own 20 to the Comet 37-yard line in 12 plays. Konshak couldn’t haul in a potential game-winning touchdown in the end zone and Bryce Neidert ended the threat by picking off a pass in front of the West De Pere bench with 9 seconds to go.
“They were almost getting into field goal position,” Koronkiewicz said. “Even with 9 seconds left, if they were tackled inbounds, they were going to have a hard time getting a field goal off. We were trying to prevent the big one. Bryce read the pattern, got to it and made a play.”
A vocal Waupaca crowd helped make a difference, according to Koronkiewicz.
“It’s a good thing because we needed every single voice,” he said. “You start the playoff process and win a game. The second level is an in-the-hunt game. The third level is a smell-it game. The pie was on the table for this game and you have to be able to get to it. In all honesty, it might have been sitting on West De Pere’s table. It was our job to come in and take it from them. I could sense the confidence in our kids, but you still have to go out on the field and do all the things you need to do. We were able to do that tonight.”
The Comets outgained the Phantoms 191-117 on the ground, but West De Pere had a 180-116 advantage through the air. Ash needed only 12 carries to get his 157 yards, while Rothering led West De Pere with 115 yards in 20 carries.
“I told them in practice that wasn’t going to be an easy contest,” said Koronkiewicz, who coached the Comets to Division 3 state championships in 2006 and 2008.
“The struggle is what makes you better players and better people in the long run,” he said. “To go to Madison and have these kids experience that, I’ve done it, but they haven’t. That’s what makes it enjoyable for everybody. A couple of letters and e-mails I got are quite touching. I even read one before the contest. When you play for us and have the success that we’ve had, you take that with you for a long, long, long time. We have a lot of former players that are pulling for us and it’s nice to hear from them. What you hope is that each one of these kids truly realizes why we’re playing.”