“Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game.”
That famous response by former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora would be out of place these days in Waupaca and Amherst.
Both high school football teams are taking 12-0 records this week into the WIAA State Football Championships, which kick off today (Thursday, Nov. 15) at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Waupaca is in the finals for the fifth time since 1994 and will take on 10-2 Catholic Memorial at 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 16, in the Division 3 title game.
Amherst, on the other hand, is at state for the first time and will play unbeaten Lancaster at 4 p.m. today for the Division 5 crown.
Although coach John Koronkiewicz has returned to Waupaca with gold trophies in 2006 and 2008 and silver in 1994 and 2002, Amherst coach Mark Lusic, a former assistant coach at Waupaca, is taking Amherst to the state finals for the first time in school history.
This year’s Falcon squad includes 15 seniors.
“A lot of them have played since their sophomore year,” said Lusic, now in his third season at Amherst. “We had no seniors my first year. We tried to be as positive as we could. Our school always had athletes, but football was always second fiddle.”
That all changed in part because of senior quarterback Chris Zblewski, who ran for three touchdowns and threw for two others Nov. 9 in Amherst’s 34-6 Level 4 win over defending Division 5 state champion Colby.
“Our quarterback makes us go,” Lusic said. “He’s a 1,000-yard rusher and a 1,000-yard passer.”
Lusic had a timetable in mind for turning the program around.
After coaching the Falcons to their first-ever playoff win last season, Lusic and the Falcons eventually fell in the third round to Brillion.
“I said three years to get the program going in the right direction,” he said. “I figured that’s how long it would take.”
After rolling through the Central Wisconsin 8 Conference and winning four playoff games, the Falcons will have their hands full today with the Flying Arrows, who are tied for the second-most state championships with six. Lancaster fell to Colby 44-43 in overtime in last year’s Division 5 title game.
“They definitely have the experience, but our kids are excited,” Lusic said. “We’re going to have to play well.”
That’s exactly what Lancaster coach John Hoch is expecting.
“It’s not hard if you have kids,” he said of the Flying Arrows’ success, which includes Division 4 titles in 1993, 2000-02 and Division 5 championships in 2005 and 2006. “We just try to get something better every year.”
It’s possible to win a championship on the first try, as that’s what Hoch and the Flying Arrows did in 1993.
“We were very fortunate to win our first year there,” he said. “It’s exciting. I’m sure they’re talking football (in Amherst) at the coffee shop, the donut shop and the lunchroom.”
Koronkiewicz hasn’t taken a team to state since the Comets capped a 14-0 season by beating Reedsburg 21-20 in the 2008 Division 3 championship game.
“This year’s Comet team is a lot like past Comet teams,” he said. “The strength of this team is really its character. We probably don’t match up well against most teams, but our guys figure out a way to get it done.”
That’s what happened in Level 4, a 16-14 win Nov. 9 over two-time defending Division 3 state champion West De Pere.
The Crusaders come into the title game with a 10-2 record, but one of those losses came to Hartland Arrowhead, a team that will play for the Division 1 championship.
“They play in a tough league,” Koronkiewicz said. “We’ll have our hands full with trying to stop them, but I’m going to give our kids some credit for their resiliency and heart.”
Catholic Memorial coach Bill Young, Lusic’s high school coach in Waukesha, said defense has been a big reason for his team’s success.
“You take away the Arrowhead game and we really played good defense down the stretch,” he said. “We’ve been the underdog all year long and now we’re going up against an outstanding team in Waupaca. We have 655 kids and we’re going up against Arrowhead with 2,300. The bigger schools talk championships, we talk playoffs.”
Two days after the Comets ended West De Pere’s 39-game winning streak, Koronkiewicz was still talking about the game.
“West De Pere is an extraordinary program, but to witness that game from a coaching standpoint, it was one of the best games I’ve been involved in,” he said. “It was a great win for our program. To have it launch you into the championship game, it was sweet.”