WAUKESHA — These guys were down to their last chance.
A false start penalty had just moved the St. Catherine’s High School football team back to its own 43-yard line. It was fourth-and-8 and the Angels trailed Lake Mills Lakeside Lutheran 28-22 with 1:57 to play in this WIAA Division 4 state semifinal.
And then quarterback Da’Shaun Brown took the snap, calmly passed to Aleks Haeuser for a 19-yard gain to give the Angels new life. Four plays later, Rashid Poole scored on a 6-yard reverse, Brown ran for a two-point conversion and St. Catherine’s held on for a 30-28 victory.
On the same night Racine Lutheran crushed Lancaster 55-28 in a Division 6 semifinal in Elkhorn, St. Catherine’s made it a truly memorable night for the county. Two teams will be making their first trip to the WIAA State Tournament and they’ll be playing within six hours of each other Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
“I just want everyone to know that football is alive and well in Racine!” St. Catherine’s coach Dan Miller exclaimed as he walked off the Waukesha North artificial turf on a bitter cold night, during which snow showers fell heavily at times.
It sure is. The Angels, who have won numerous state championships in several sports in its history, will try for its first one in football Thursday. They will play St. Croix Central (13-0), a 48-25 winner over Little Chute Friday, for the Division 4 championship at 7 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium.
Brown, who had trouble hanging onto the ball on this freezing night, persevered to produce some big plays down the stretch. But the real difference-maker was 5-foot-6, 130-pound Isaiah Dodd, who carried the ball a career-high 37 times for 221 yards and three touchdowns.
“MVP!” Brown shouted at Dodd during the jubilant postgame celebration at midfield. “There’s your MVP right there.”
Added Miller, “They concentrated on doing what they could to stop Da’Shaun and Isaiah really came through tonight.”
And to think St. Catherine’s trailed 28-14 with 5:04 remaining in the third quarter and appeared to be on the verge of a collapse.
Lakeside Lutheran quarterback Jack Monis had just broken free for a 65-yard touchdown run — the second time the Warriors had burned St. Catherine’s for a long scoring run on this night.
And on the second play of St. Catherine’s ensuing possession, Brown fumbled the shotgun snap and there was a wild scramble for the ball. Lakeside Lutheran’s Charlie Miller recovered at St. Catherine’s 13 and, two plays later, Casey Ponyicsanyi scored from a yard out.
Considering Lakeside Lutheran often moved the ball at will, it appeared that St. Catherine’s was nearing the end of the line.
It’s just that the Angels weren’t buying that for a second.
“I never had a doubt in my mind that we could come back,” Brown said. “I never had a doubt.”
Dodd wasn’t quite as confident.
“Yeah, I was a little concerned,” he said. “But we’re brothers and we stick together. And we stuck together tonight.”
Dodd personally led the way. On St. Catherine’s next series, the elusive Dodd twisted and turned for 28 yards on five carries as the Angels quickly moved downfield. He capped the drive with a 7-yard scoring run and Brown ran for the two-point conversion — his second of the night — as the Angels pulled to within 28-22.
St. Catherine’s had a major scare when Lakeside Lutheran drove to the Angels’ 27 with 4:39 to play. But on fourth-and-8, Monis’ pass to Cameron Paske on a corner route fell incomplete, putting the Angels in the driver’s seat.
Dodd opened the series with successive runs of six, seven, two and four yards. But on third-and-four on the Angels’ 46, Dodd was stuffed at the line and St. Catherine’s followed with a false-start penalty, putting Brown in a do-or-die situation.
And did he ever respond. First came the 19-yard pass to Haeuser with 1:49 left. Had he failed to connect, Lakeside Lutheran (11-2) easily could have ran out the clock.
After a 2-yard run by Dodd, Brown rolled right and found Azarien Stephens for a 30-yard pass to Lakeside Lutheran’s 6 with 59 seconds to play. After another fumbled snap, Brown threw the ball away.
And then came the play of the game. Brown took the snap, moved to his right and handed the ball off to Poole on a reverse, who easily made it into the end zone to tie the score at 28-28.
“That was Scott McAuliffe all the way,” Miller said, referring to his offensive coordinator. “Scott was the one who called that play.”
Added Poole: “We had that in the playbook and we were practicing it. It was great to finally use it.”
But St. Catherine’s still wasn’t quite out of the woods. Lakeside Lutheran took over at its own 18 with 18 seconds left. Considering the Warriors had piled up 334 yards on the night, they had the ability to strike again and break St. Catherine’s hearts.
But it was not to be. With one second left at the St. Catherine’s 31, Monis dropped back to pass, but was sacked by DJ Carter and Brian Sharp as time expired.
For Miller, he will be going back to Camp Randall Stadium 30 years after he was a starting junior linebacker on Park’s 1988 WIAA Division championship. Now he has a chance to win a second state championship as a coach.
“I’m speechless,” Miller said. “I just don’t have the words. I just want to thank my wife, Tasha, who has been with me every step of the way. She means everything to me.”