"We need to figure out a way to make this work."
Those were the words of Muskego coach Ken Krause on Tuesday morning, in the days leading up to the delayed start of the 2020 high school football season in Wisconsin.
Muskego, and every high school football program in Wisconsin, lost five weeks of the season when the WIAA decided in a special Board of Control meeting in July to set the start date for what it considered high-risk sports, such as football, soccer, and volleyball, to Labor Day, while letting the lower-risk sports begin August 10. The special session also provided a way for schools unable to compete in the fall to try again in the spring, with a seven-week schedule starting in late March. For the rest, it meant September 25 was the first day of competition.
308 days to the hour prior to kickoff against Arrowhead, Muskego left the field at Camp Randall Stadium as two-time defending Division 1 state champions and owners of a 28-game winning streak. Now, 2020 will not crown a state champion, but the general consensus is that we're lucky to have football at all.
That of course is due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has eliminated swaths of athletic competition this spring, summer, fall, and soon, winter. Up until the Green Bay Packers took on the Detroit Lions on September 20 at Lambeau Field, there hadn't been a football game played in the state of Wisconsin since the Packers played in January in the NFC Playoffs. For about a month, the Big Ten football season was on hiatus, although it is now back on, meaning the Wisconsin Badgers won't be in action until October 24, although all other fall sports are postponed and winter sports will have a delayed start.
All of that is to say, that after the high school basketball tournaments, and the entire spring sports seasons, were cancelled, getting back on the field in football felt like a monumental step forward in a return to normalcy, and nobody is taking football for granted in 2020. Not during a pandemic, not in future years.
Coach Krause laughed after repeating himself saying that "we have to figure out a way to make this work," before adding: "I'm glad we're back."
One of the biggest challenges facing school districts during the pandemic has been staffing. With each county, and each district within each county, finding their own ways to mitigate risk and operate as close to normal as possible, it seems the plan changes daily, sometimes even hourly. One suggestion from a board member, one well-prepared argument by a doctor, one heartbreaking example of how the virus impacts a community, that is all it takes sometime to fundamentally alter the structure of schooling in Wisconsin in 2020.
Part of staffing for school functions includes finding coaches and leaders for extracurricular activities, with the notion that they may or may not happen this school year. Those positions are often tied to teaching jobs, further complicating the ways a school allocates resources as they prepare for in-person, virtual, or blended instruction, which also needs to be ready to change on a dime and adjust as conditions improve or worsen in the public health arena.
While it didn't specifically apply to Arrowhead's first-year coach Matt Harris, he did have to wait a while to find out he would be the next person to lead the storied Warhawks football program.
"The offseason was pretty crazy," Harris said the day before the season opener against Muskego. "I was here during the whole interview process. I planned on getting the job, of course, but I was still preparing Waukesha North for the season in March."
Harris, who was already the head coach at Waukesha North, said it was like preparing for two teams at the same time. In addition to the usual rigors of being a first-year head coach, particularly at one of Wisconsin's most successful schools in athletics, the pandemic posed some challenges as well.
"I got hired in March, but I didn't even meet the team until July," said Harris. "[We] still haven't had a parent meeting."
Harris lamented that he didn't get to spend any time with the Warhawks this offseason.
"I'm a relationship person, so this is difficult," Harris said. "The kids were amazing, though, and did everything we asked."
"These kids are so weathered and seasoned," Harris continued. "Some of the kids are stronger than the adults, and persevered."
On the other side of the field was Ken Krause, at the helm of a squad that had won 28 straight games entering play Friday night. Krause suggested that a positive approach was necessary, and his players bought in.
"You have to try to be positive," said Krause. "Try to win the Covid."
Krause was a big fan of the buy-in, noting that his team excelled in the weight room this offseason. In the absence of being able to have contact with players in July, evaluation was done virtually.
"I'd watch their videos, and grade technique and critique," said Krause. "I probably got closer to the kids because of the individual contact."
Krause paused, then added: "I try to make the best of things."
When it was suggested that managing the challenges of the pandemic might be more mental than physical, Krause agreed.
"We need school, we need sports," said Krause. "We gotta figure out a way to make this work."
Even with a game nearly in hand, Krause understands the reality of the pandemic and what it has already done to the schedule. One game in the Classic 8 was canceled already due to virus spread, and dozens more were canceled, postponed, or altered as a result of it as well.
"I'm glad we're back," said Krause, "and I pray that we stay in and don't go virtual."
Taraska Stadium is one of the jewels of high school facilities in Wisconsin. From its wide bleachers to its luxury boxes, the north-south oriented field on Arrowhead High School's South Campus sits nestled between tennis courts and a baseball diamond, located in a mostly residential section of the Town of Merton.
Upon entry, signs noted that masks needed to be worn upon entry and exit, and while moving within the stadium. Tickets were limited to two per player, which added up given that each roster has around 100 players. A small sanitizing station was set up near the game programs. Come gametime, a few hundred parents barely covered the vast expanses in the bleachers, which can hold a maximum of 3,561 fans.
Leading up to the game itself, there was some of the usual hallmarks of Friday night lights, such as a cheer squad and a (member-reduced) marching band. Once the game kicked off, it felt, mostly, like a slice of pre-pandemic life had been restored.
It didn't take long for Muskego to get things going, as returning WFCA All-State running back Alex Current took the second carry of the game for Muskego 79 yards to the house to give the Warriors a fast 6-0 lead on Arrowhead. After forcing a three-and-out, Muskego had another two-play drive, this time with Current jogging into the end zone from 70 yards away, making it Muskego 12, Arrowhead 0 just 3:10 into the contest.
After that, each team settled in. Arrowhead capped off a long drive early in the second quarter, one that lasted 12 plays but stalled inside the 30, with a 39-yard field goal to get on the board. Muskego quickly countered with Alex Current's third touchdown of the game, set up by a 43-yard burst by fullback Josh Bulski.
Arrowhead committed the only turnover of the game mid-way through the second quarter, out of a timeout. Arrowhead quarterback Max Bredeson saw a pass get caught in a 15-mile-per-hour wind gust, which knocked it into the hands of cornerback Mason Buehler, a returning honorable mention All-Classic 8 selection. However, the turnover didn't cost Arrowhead, as they were able to get the ball back with 3:25 to play in the second quarter. A defensive penalty gave the Warhawks an untimed down, and Bredeson ran in from five yards away to make it a one-possession game after the extra point try was good.
A three-and-out turned the ball over to Muskego early in the third quarter, and a one-play drive resulted in a 49-yard touchdown run for Current, his fourth of the game.
Digging deep, Arrowhead put together a 14-play drive covering 80 yards in 6:27 to pull back within a score, 25-17. After the teams traded three-and-outs, it was Arrowhead advancing deep into Warriors territory, looking to bridge the gap between the teams a bit. However, a 44-yard field goal missed wide right, and Muskego would take over with 5:46 left in regulation on its own 20.
Bulski again made a huge run, this time for 60 yards, to set up yet another Current touchdown run, his fifth of the game, which put the contest a little out of reach with 2:45 remaning.
One more Bredeson touchdown narrowed it to a one-possession game yet again, but the Warhawks couldn't recover an onside kick with eight seconds left in the game and fell to the two-time defending champions Muskego, 32-24.
Current had five touchdowns on just eight carries for 229 yards for Muskego, who also got 113 yards on 11 carries by Bulski and 12 yards rushing from the rest of the team. Arrowhead got a monster night from Bredeson, who finished with 157 yards passing and 131 yards rushing to go with two touchdowns on the ground and 13 completions to seven different receivers. Jordan Tanke was the third running back in and the most effective, going for a touchdown on 11 carries and 27 yards.
Wisconsin recruit Hunter Wohler was particularly impressive zig-zagging and angling down the field, making a stop at the goal line on one of Muskego's several red zone defensive opportunities, and was perhaps highlighted by covering 40 yards at a perfect angle to stop a play short of a first down at midfield. Wohler also got a carry and a target on a pass attempt on offense, and added a couple of solid kick returns to the highlight reel.
Muskego got its 29th straight win, while Arrowhead suffered no major injury and adjusted well against one of the top teams in the state to open the 2020 campaign.
For the first night of high school football in 308 days, the resounding conclusion was that everyone was happy to have high school football back. On a room temperature evening and a clear sky, the idyllic backdrop to the first night of contests in the state in 2020 helped paint, for one night at least, a picture of a return to play both unprecedented and cautiously anticipated.
Week 2 Iron Joc Game of the Week: Catholic Memorial at Brookfield Central (October 2, 7pm)
Photos: Jimmie Kaska