How much does the physical, emotional and ultimately historic 14-7 win that the Whitefish Bay football team pulled off against archrival Homestead on Friday night night mean?
On the surface, it meant that Blue Dukes coach Jim Tietjen got his first Gatorade bath in 36 years.
"They haven't done that ever," he said with a laugh. "I think they're afraid to."
But these Blue Dukes (5-1 in North Shore play and 6-1 overall) weren't afraid to play, as they handed the Highlanders (5-1, 6-1) their first loss of the season. It was the first win for Bay over Homestead since 2000 and puts the team within a win over border rival Nicolet next Friday of at least a share of its first conference title since 1993.
On the more emotional and metaphysical level, it meant that Bay players could hug and cry and be joined in an onfield celebration by an army of fans and many former players who swarmed together for a homecoming get-together for the ages.
"I think it means a lot for our team and all the guys on the sideline and all the players who came before us," said tight end/safety Jackson Weber, who had four critical catches for 36 yards. "To win this game and potentially this conference title is a dream come true not only for us, but for them too."
And it really was for many current Blue Dukes.
All-Suburban running back Rashadeem Gray was not having the greatest night. The Highlanders defense made it its mission to stop the state track champion and elusive state-level wrestler in his tracks, and they did, as he had only 22 yards rushing on 15 carries.
But he had a critical 39-yard reception that keyed the Blue Dukes' 10-play 62-yard drive at the end of the first half.
That march ended when gritty quarterback Grant Menard (18 carries and 66 yards rushing, 101 yards passing) called his own number from two yards out on fourth down with 42 seconds left and scored what would be ultimately the game-winning touchdown that made it 14-7.
"I think it was all the coaches having faith in the offense and in me," said Menard of the character-building fourth-down score.
Gray, who was also put in at defensive back from time-to-time, came up with a critical interception on a deep circle route late in the fourth quarter.
"I don't know what to say about this," he said on the verge of tears. "This is one of the greatest things in my life. Getting this conference title. It was a great week of practice. A lot happened (because of homecoming) but we stayed focused.
"It's unbelievable, we worked so hard for us. A real band of brothers."
Menard echoed a lot of toughts when he said maybe this win was just long overdue.
"I think it was karma, maybe fate," Menard said, referring to the number of close decisions that the Blue Dukes had lost to the Highlanders in the last decade. "I mean it's been since 1993 for a conference title and more than a drecade between wins against these guys.
"We finally got a couple of things to swing our way and get the 'W'."
In the first half, after Bay took the opening kickoff and pounded out a 12-play 71-yard drive that ended with Menard scoring on an eight-yard TD run to make it 7-0, Homestead's swift Jabree Washington took a little swing pass and raced 47 yards, setting up the Highlanders for a 1st and goal at the Bay three.
But the Blue Dukes defense turned stout. Shaquille Cole (13 rushes for 75 yards) was turned back for a 2-yard loss on second down after no gain on first down. Jay Schneider tried to go wide on third down but Jeremiah Holt cut him down down for a one-yard loss, and when Homestead coach Dave Keel rolled the dice and decided to go for it on fourth down, Schneider got five yards when he actually needed six.
"I think we really set the tempo when we turned them back like that," said Tietjen. "That was a huge stop. We just had to keep winning battle after battle if we ultimately wanted to win the war."
Homestead did tie the score late in the second quarter on Cole's tough-as-nails 3-yard run with 3:43 left, but that left more than enough time for the Blue Dukes to mount their go-ahead drive.
The battles became more frequent in a physical second half, but Bay kept winning them, with a dose of luck for good measure.
Gray had a punt return early in the third quarter slip through his hands only to have a teammate jump on it.
A short time later, a sweep play went awry and the ball was lost for a moment, but again a Bay player averted disaster and recovered it.
And in one of the biggest plays of the game, Homestead went for a fake punt on a 4th and 11 from its own 36 in the fourth quarter. The direct snap play to upback Riley Pelisek was perfectly designed, and it looked like Pelisek was going to get the first down easily, but a Blue Dukes player punched the ball out and senior defensive back Dan Pettay recovered it.
Shortly thereafter, Homestead quarterback Jake Laihinen, who was making his return after missing a couple of games because of injury, went for the home run on the deep circle route pass but Gray was there to take it away from the Highlander receiver.
"I was just a step faster than the guy and able to make a play on the ball," said Gray.
After that, Menard hit Weber with a 9-yard pass for a first down and Bay was able to run out the clock and howl to the moon in joy.
After his celebratory "bath" Tietjen hugged one player after another, one fan after another, one family member after another.
He's usually a big picture guy and doesn't get too high after an individual win, but he did really like this one and the noisy, explosive atmosphere that went along with it on this cool October night.
"What a great bunch of kids," he said, "and the school did a great job today. We had a pep rally, and it was the best one I was ever at. Kids and fans were out here at 6 p.m. already helping us get ready. It was great.
"...Just one big play after another. The defense getting that huge stop early, Ra-Ra's interception, Grant's pass to Jackson. We've had games like this slip away in the past, but this time the kids rose to the occasion."
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