RACINE — As he was preparing for a game that had long ago been circled on the calendar, Jackson Bandkowski was approached by his coach, Dan Miller.
The St. Catherine’s High School football team was playing Greendale Martin Luther in a crucial Metro Classic Conference showdown Oct. 5 and Miller needed more speed on his kickoff coverage unit. He had to tell Bandkowski, one of his most dedicated and popular players, that someone faster would be in his place that night.
Bandkowski understood. And instead of pouting, he welcomed Miller’s difficult decision.
“I told coach when he took me off the kickoff, ‘I’m just glad to be a part of the family.’ There was no disappointment because I just figured, ‘Next guy up, best guy in,’” Bandkowski said.
“I’m just here for the family aspects and my love for football.”
Bandkowski has been satisfied in such a big way. He has a family of 31 other players. And his love for football has been satisfied with the ultimate grand finale to his high school career.
The undefeated Angels, who have been through so much together the last four years, will try to complete an undefeated state championship season Thursday at Camp Randall Stadium. They will play St. Croix Central, also undefeated, in the Division 4 championship game at 7 p.m.
Partly by design and partly because of circumstances, this has become the year of the Angels.
Three players are entering their fourth season as starters and nine are entering their third, which translates into ample leadership and experience. The full-time starters are comprised of 11 seniors and seven juniors.
For the first time in years, there are no freshmen or sophomores starting for St. Catherine’s.
“Everybody, from the beginning, was pretty confident,” senior right tackle CJ Simmons said. “We had a pretty good season last year. It ended pretty rough in that second-round playoff game.
“But this year, everyone knew it was our last year at St. Cat’s. A lot of us have been here for four years and have been playing together for a long time in middle school or high school. And we just felt we have to give it our all this year and take whatever we can get.”
Applying an edge to that experience are some gut-wrenching memories. The Angels were eliminated from the playoffs in the second round each of the previous three seasons, with the most recent being Oct. 27, 2017, to Lake Mills.
Following that 30-13 loss, this group only had one more chance to think about Camp Randall Stadium and a state championship. It was put up or shut up.
“Throughout the whole offseason and during this season and even in the last game, we talked about how we don’t want to go out like last year,” senior safety Jarren Hutcherson said. “The curse we had to break was the second-round curse in the playoffs.”
Added senior receiver Azarien Stephens, “When the second round came around, we had a chip on our shoulder.”
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The mentality had staying power in the playoffs, especially last Friday. The Angels trailed Lake Mills Lakeside Lutheran 28-14 in the third quarter on a 20-degree night with heavy snow showers. Lake Mills was gashing St. Catherine’s for big gains.
These guys might have decided they were satisfied with how far they got and check out emotionally. Instead, they refused to lose, rallying for a dramatic 30-28 victory.
“There’s that little spark in us that doesn’t like to give up,” Stephens said. “We stepped up and that gave us confidence that we should never be doubted, no matter how much time is left on the clock and no matter what the score is.
“That really showed a big part of our confidence.”
So the Angels have experience. They’re battle tested. The third factor is they are immensely talented.
Da’Shaun Brown, who came to St. Catherine’s as a sophomore, could be the most athletic quarterback in the history of high school football in this county. Fast, strong and quick, Brown has rushed for more than 1,400 yards. He has also passed for 25 touchdowns with just three interceptions,
How electrifying is Brown? He’s returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in the postseason. And he has nine touchdown runs of at least 45 yards this season, including three of 72 yards, one of 71 and one of 96.
“He has like freak athletic ability,” Simmons said. “He just adds another sword for us. He makes our offense so much more valuable. He can run any type of play. You can give him the ball and he just takes off and runs with it. When they blitz, he makes sure those linebackers miss him.
“Or he’ll make a big play-action play. The other team will think the running back has the ball and then Da’Shaun will take off and make a great pass.”
Speaking of running backs, the 5-foot-6, 160-pound Isaiah Dodd was huge for the Angels last Friday when Lakeside Lutheran tried to key on Brown. The little guy responded with 221 yards and three touchdowns on a career-high 37 carries.
Maybe the most underrated player on St. Catherine’s offense is tight end Aleks Haeuser, who has 10 touchdown receptions among his 24 receptions.
“He really stood out this year,” Stephens said. “Not many people thought of him as a big piece in the passing game, but he was one of our bigger pieces because he really worked hard in the offseason to get stronger and faster.”
Among the best juniors on this team is inside linebacker Brian Sharp, who has 88 solo tackles — 34 more than anyone else on the team — 42 assists and two sacks. Nineteen of his tackles have been for loss.
“He’s been doing amazing things for us,” Simmons said.
Put this all together and the Angels just might be bringing back a gold football from Madison Thursday night. It would be the first in the program’s history.
“That would be a dream come true,” senior receiver Rashid Poole said. “We would be the first to do it the school. It would be a dream come true, for sure.”