There are those who have suggested high school football is on the decline in Racine County. With the spiraling popularity of soccer and injury concerns related to football, maybe a glorious era was passing by.
And then St. Catherine’s and Racine Lutheran went on to write a new chapter for football in this area last fall.
A senior-dominated St. Catherine’s, led by first-team AP All-State quarterback Da’Shaun Brown, won the WIAA Division 4 championship in heart-stopping fashion Nov. 15 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Earlier that day, Racine Lutheran made its first appearance in the Division 6 championship game on the strength of a remarkable postseason run by running back Tyler Tenner. And while the Crusaders lost, it was still one of the most memorable days in the history of high school sports in Racine County.
Of the top 10 local sports stories of the year as selected by The Journal Times sports staff, St. Catherine’s championship and Lutheran’s runner-up finish was ranked No. 1. The stories were chosen based on news value and impact on the community.
St. Catherine’s had been in a postseason funk going into this season, having been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs each of the previous three years. But coach Dan Miller had a team of 15 seniors, some of whom had started since their freshman year.
One of them was Brown, a dual threat as a passer and runner who accounted for 8,238 yards and 119 touchdowns in his three years as a starter. And when things were at their most tense as the Angels advanced deep into the postseason, Brown was at his best.
Take Nov. 9, when the Angels were playing Lake Mills Lakeside Lutheran in a semifinal as snow fell at Waukesha North High School.
Lakeside Lutheran was leading 28-14 in the third quarter. With the field becoming increasingly slippery from the accumulating snow and Lakeside Lutheran’s defense designed to contain Brown, time was working against the Angels.
But Brown rallied them to within 28-22. And then St. Catherine’s faced a fourth-and-8 at its own 43-yard line with 1:57 left. It was time for the Angels to either produce or go home for the season.
Brown, dealing with a leg cramp since halftime, dropped back and calmly threw a 19-yard pass to Aleks Haeuser. Rashid Poole went on to score on a seven-yard reverse to finish off a miracle 30-28 victory.
The best was yet to come, though.
In what was a chess match of a Division 4 championship game against St. Croix Central, the Angels trailed 7-0 with 12 seconds remaining when Brown ran three yards for a touchdown.
What followed was as good as it gets in terms of drama. Miller’s strategy all along was to run for two-point conversions since the Angels’ kicking game had not been effective during the season, making that conversion a winner-take-all proposition.
St. Catherine’s called a timeout to discuss strategy after Brown’s touchdown. And then it called a second timeout after seeing how St. Croix Central lined up for the conversion. With loud screams piercing the cold air, Brown ran untouched to his left for the game-winning conversion.
“What’s going through my mind is this is a blessing,” Brown said minutes after his clutch performance. “We went through so much adversity. In my three years at St. Cat’s. we lost in the second round of the playoffs twice and everything in the past was going through my mind.
“It’s a crazy feeling winning state. You’re above everybody. You’re No. 1 and it’s a blessing.”
Lutheran made an impressive run of its own with a veteran team under longtime coach Scott Smith. The centerpiece was Tenner, who produced numbers in the postseason that most any back would gladly take in an entire season.
In five postseason games, Tenner rushed for 1,086 yards and scored 15 touchdowns. He earned second-team AP All-State honors after rushing for 2,229 yards ans scoring 186 points during his junior season.
The Crusaders entered the Division 6 championship game against Iola-Scandinavia with a full head of steam after dominating perennial state power Lancaster 55-28 in the semifinal. But Iola-Scandinavia took a 29-0 lead at halftime, forcing Lutheran to play catch-up and minimizing Tenner’s impact.
Tenner finished with 126 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. But Iola-Scandinavia’s Bryce Huettner, the state’s all-time leading rusher who was named the AP Player of the Year in Wisconsin, rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns.
“It was a great opportunity for us,” Smith said. “I just think the stage was too big. We didn’t block, we didn’t stay on our blocks, we didn’t tackle well and we got lost in coverages.
“I think we were just a little star-struck.”
Still, the Crusaders returned from Madison with their first silver football.
And the Angels brought back a gold football, the first for a football team at St. Catherine’s.
It truly was a year to remember for high school football in this county.