Shorewood/Messmer football coach Drake Zortman concluded his postgame business in a solemn mood with his Whitefish Bay counterparts following the Greyhounds 37-0 loss in a level 1 WIAA Division 2 playoff game Friday night in Bay.
He walked deliberately towards his anxious team waiting in the north end zone, quietly took over for his defensive coordinator, who was praising the unit for the four turnovers that it forced in the season-ending loss and then told his players "To clutch a teammate and think about Donovan for a minute."
He then let his team breathe again when he quickly followed that statement with a decisively said: "He's going to be fine. In my heart, he's going to be fine."
And that's when Shorewood/Messmer senior defensive back/running back Donovan Freeman's teammates could finally exhale again.
The game was already out of hand at 35-0 when on the second series of the third quarter, Bay defensive back Adam Strehlow intercepted a pass from Greyhounds' quarterback Taylor Dennis. Strehlow set off running along the Bay sideline and in the ensuing chaos and pursuit, Donovan collided hard with another teammate.
After a short delay, the teammate got up but Freeman did not. Then ensued a longer, more anxious delay as medical professionals and the two teams gathered around Freeman, who had missed several games already this season with other injuries and who had been performing well in recent contests.
Eventually, an ambulance was summoned into Sheldon Lubar Stadium, and Freeman was carefully placed on a backboard. He was suffering from what Zortman confirmed was a neck injury. He was then placed in the ambulance and taken to an area hospital for treatment.
"But he was talking clearly and his hands, his fingers and his toes, they were alll working just fine," said Zortman. "It's the most important thing, he's going to be OK."
"We're hoping that it's all just purely precautionary," said a relieved Blue Dukes coach Jim Tietjen.
That event clearly took the edge off the off the first meeting between the two area rivals in about 11 years, as Bay (8-1 overall) advanced to a Level 2 playoff tilt at home next weekend against Brookfield Central, which beat South Milwaukee, 33-8. Shorewood/Messmer's fine season ended at 7-2.
The Blue Dukes, who are looking to build on their best WIAA state playoff run in school history last season, clearly established an edge early on against the upstart Greyhounds, who were making their second straight state playoff berth after a long hiatus.
Shorewood/Messmer, backed by a large and enthusiastic crowd, had come in with a 7-1 record and an explosive offensive that had averaged over 40 points a game.
But Zortman knew all that achievement may have been built on something of a house of cards, as the Greyhounds played in the Midwest Classic Conference, which is populated by small Division 6 and 7 enrollment-level schools while Bay shared the North Shore Conference title, a league that is made up of Division 1, 2 and 3 schools.
That point was made early, as after the Greyhounds stung the Blue Dukes with a 22-yard Dennis to Riley Sellinger pass on the first play of the game ("We were hoping that that play would be open right then," said Zortman), they quickly found themselves with a 4th and one at their own 49.
Zortman decided to roll the dice and go for it, but he lost the bet, as Blue Dukes senior defensive lineman Alec Monaghan stuffed Dennis hard on a quarterback sneak for no gain.
A play later, the Blue Dukes' all-state level running back Rashadeem Gray took off one way, then went another as he raced in for a touchdown from 49 yards out with just over 2 minutes gone in the game.
"I thought we really established a tone with those two plays," said Tietjen of the stop and score.
That they did, as a pattern quickly emerged that stayed with the game throughout the first half. The Blue Duke defense would stuff the vaunted Greyhounds attack, and then Bay would methodically and occasionally explosively work down the field and score.
Bay then found paydirt on succesive drives of 87, 60, 76 and 61 yards, respectively, as Julian Posey scored on runs of 16 and two yards, and Gray would tack on TD bursts of 25 and eight yards.
All told, Bay would run up 332 total yards and 15 first downs in the first half in building a 35-0 advantage. Gray would have 130 yards on just 13 carries in that session while Posey had 63 yards on six carries before he came out with an arm injury.
"There was no question about it, the conference (Midwest Classic) could not prepare us to play in a game with this kind of speed and physicality," Zortman said. "Until we are (competing) in a different league, it will be difficult for us to win Division I or 2 playoff games."
"They came in with a nice resume'," said Tietjen. "Something like 33 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards gained, but it was hard to gauge the level of this win. They had some nice players 11 (the quarterback Dennis), 27 (running back Alec Grimmer) and 85 (tight end Jonathan Carson).
"I also thought Drake (Zortman) did a great job of keeping us off balance for awhile."
Zortman did throw in everything but the kitchen sink, using four wide receivers and no back sets frequently as the elusive Dennis was able several times to evade the Bay rush.
The one first half defensive highlight for the Greyhounds was the interception of a deep Grant Menard pass by sophomore defensive back Raymund Pierce.
Shorewood/Messmer did force three Bay fumbles off the Blue Dukes reserve unit in the second half but could not cash in. In fact, Bay was able to force a safety after one of those plays when it tackled a Greyhounds player in the end zone.
Zortman was very disappointed when late in the game, following Freeman's injury, Grimmer was able to take a Bay fumble to the house for what would have been a consolation touchdown, but a block in the back call negated the score.
"We're going to sit back and evaluate ourselves," Zortman said, "but I could already see that between this game and 12 months ago (an equally one-sided playoff loss to Milwaukee Riverside), we did do some things better."
Tietjen already knows that his team has gotten better over the course of the season, but is keeping the goals simple at this point.
"The only thing that's important at this time is advancing to the next level (of the playoffs)," he said.