That's the message to the players on the defending Division 2 state football champion Brookfield East Spartans from their head coach, Ben Farley.
While the message applies in general to football, these days, that message applies to life as well. An ever-changing landscape in the high school football world saw 38 games canceled, nearly a quarter of all games scheduled for Week 3 of the season, according to Travis Wilson of WisSports.net. Outside the lines, cases continue to skyrocket across the state, particularly in the central and eastern portions of Wisconsin, where hospitals are suddenly overwhelmed with patients and the seven-day average is at record highs, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. A statewide mask ban was upheld by a court in western Wisconsin, which, other than a 25% limit on indoor capacity for certain businesses and events, is the only level of virus mitigation present in the state of Wisconsin.
As the tally of canceled games slowly trends upwards in correlation with case counts across Wisconsin, the anxiety is palpable, especially for members of an athletics department or program in a position of leadership. Schools were changing match-ups right up until Friday, including a marquee contest set up Wednesday between Menomonee Falls and Catholic Memorial, as other districts dropped out or went virtual.
As school districts go virtual and assess risk, the fact that most schools are still able to compete in fall sports is not lost on coaches, players, or administrators, including Coach Farley.
"[The players] recognize that it will be a different year," said Farley, a few hours before his team took the field against their cross-town rivals, the Brookfield Central Lancers. "Kids understand that... it will be a fluid situation."
That fluidity and ability to adapt will likely separate the teams that find success in this most unusual of seasons, with success loosely determined as an opportunity given to the group of student-athletes that have worked hard to get to this point in their lives. Wins and losses are rarely discussed in meeting with administrators and coaches; the focus is more on the individual, the senior, the team captain, the four-year letterwinner who gets at least one more game under the lights with their school's name across the front of their jersey.
Staying grounded and focused on an ever-changing situation is at the front of everyone's minds, but at least in football, there's still a few time-honored lessons that apply, both to the game between the lines and life away from the gridiron.
"Next man up is the mentality," says Farley, noting that the defending state champs graduated 20 seniors from a year ago, so the lesson has been in place since last November.
Any other year, Harrison-Thomas Stadium would be a hurricane of two different hues of blue as fans in the Elmbrook School District converged for the annual showdown between Central and East. In recent years, the intra-city rivalry has taken on a greater sense of importance, gained far greater attention, and delivered memorable moments and players to the grandest stages in high school football.
Coach Joel Nellis, in his second year coaching the Brookfield Central Lancers, is no stranger to games between schools in the same district. The former Madison Memorial Spartan lined up across from three other city schools during his high school athletic career, and knows all about the atmosphere, energy, and passion that an intracity game brings.
"The intracity game is fun," said Nellis, calling the annual Battle Of Brookfield a good rivalry. "There's a lot of bragging rights on the line."
Before Friday's contest, Nellis acknowledged that there would be something missing from the stadium for this year's contest.
"Even with only a few fans there, we should have a good atmosphere," said Nellis, noting that most years, the game is used as a fundraiser to help raise money for battling childhood cancer. "Hopefully, it's a crazy time."
Brookfield East, state champions in 2016 and 2019, earning one-score victories over Badger Conference schools Monona Grove and Waunakee, respectively, and Brookfield East, state runners-up in 2017 and 2018, have combined for four straight playoff appearances. That level of success is almost unheard of in Wisconsin, where two public schools in the same district can manage to advance that deep into the playoffs.
2020 won't result in any one advancing to state, but in the first couple of weeks, each program asserted itself in different ways. Brookfield East managed to win its opener over Sussex Hamilton, a program with a new head coach at the helm, thanks to a strong offensive showing. Brookfield Central, meanwhile, dropped one-score games to teams ranked #1 in the state in their respective divisions, Menomonee Falls (failing on a late two-point conversion sans their star running back for the entire contest) and Catholic Memorial (a long kickoff return aided by a penalty gave the Crusaders the chance to punch in the game-winning score). Both schools were considered to be in something of a rebuilding or reloading mode, despite lodes of talent on both teams.
Brookfield East graduated a big part of its core from the 2019 title run, while Brookfield Central saw large departures, particularly along the offensive line, from a season ago. None of that mattered when the teams kicked off at 7 p.m. sharp on Friday night, however.
"Since our school went virtual in March, there's been eager anticipation to get kids back safely and back in the weight room," said Brookfield East coach Ben Farley. "We had a lot of guys step into that leadership void. This season means opportunities exist for players who haven't played as much in the past, or might be younger."
Farley's advice to the younger players? "Stay ready," he said.
"Earn your opportunity, and don't let anything be a surprise."
On a room-temperature night in Brookfield, the atmosphere was workmanlike. Parents, cheerleaders, and school administrators fanned out in the bleachers and on the track in advance of the game, limited in attendance due to the pandemic. One television crew was on hand to shoot some highlights during the game, but aside from the location and the clean, green surface of the brand-new turf at Harrison-Thomas Stadium, the atmosphere felt like any normal Friday night high school football game in Wisconsin.
Brookfield Central wasted no time in establishing its identity for the game. Evan Neubauer and Cam Devine combined for 11 carries and 63 yards on the game's opening drive, capped off by a short touchdown pass from Robert Bloom to Ben Peterson to complete a 14-play, 67-yard drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock in the first quarter.
After stopping the Brookfield East offense in just four plays, Central once again got to work, marching down the field on another 14-play drive. Unfortunately for Central, the nearly eight-minute drive was stopped at the one by the East defense, turning the ball over to the Spartans midway through the second quarter.
East managed to escape its own end zone, but was forced to punt the ball away, trapped deep in their own territory with only three minutes left until halftime. The teams traded possessions to end the first half with Brookfield Central leading 7-0.
In the second half, East got things moving on their first drive of the third quarter, advancing into the Central red zone in an attempt to tie the game. The Lancers, however would have other ideas, taking down Matthew Schmainda to force a turnover on downs with 7:38 to play in the frame.
On offense, Central would go on an 11-play, 86-yard journey, featuring Bloom going five-for-five passing on the drive with a 23-yard touchdown at the end to tight end Seth Olski to push the Lancers' lead to 14-0 late in the third quarter.
East would again work the ball into scoring range, but Central's defense again closed the door after giving up a pair of big pass plays, forcing a turnover on downs for the second time in the game. Central wasn't able to do anything on the ensuing possession, sending the ball back to the Spartans with 7:30 to play in the game.
East's final drive began with a huge 55-yard pass play from Luke Pluemer to Anthony Alberts, swinging a bit of momentum to the Spartans' sideline. However, on the very next play, one of the state's top defensive linemen made his impact, as Hayden Nelson sacked Pluemer for a loss of seven yards, then forced an incompletion with a quarterback hit on the very next snap. Central's defense would then stop East on fourth down to take over on downs for the third time in the game with 5:32 to play.
From there, Central ran nine plays and two kneeldowns to wind down the clock and pick up their first win of the 2020 season, a 14-0 shutout of the defending D2 state champs. The win also ended an 0-2 start to the season, something the Lancers hadn't done in 15 years. Bloom finished with 90 yards passing and two touchdowns, while Cam Devine rushed 22 times for 138 yards to power the Lancers.
On Friday, the IRONJOC Game of the Week is Waukesha West at Mukwonago. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. on 97.3 The Game and iHeartRadio!
Photos: Jimmie Kaska