SHOREWOOD — This is the East Division’s year to host the Woodland Conference crossover football games, so West Division champion New Berlin Eisenhower had to take a road trip to defend its 2017 Woodland crown.
That was absolutely no problem for the Lions. They not only prowled boldly into enemy territory Thursday, but lived at their opponents’ end of the field for the majority of the game and set the continuous clock in motion en route to a 55-20 victory over Shorewood/ Messmer.
Eisenhower, ranked atop this week’s Associated Press Medium Division state poll, improved to 9-0 overall, finished 8-0 in the Woodland for the second consecutive season and extended its conference winning streak to 19 games. The Lions will now await their draw for the WIAA playoffs, which will begin Oct. 19.
“I’m just super proud,” said Eisenhower coach Matt Kern, who guided the Lions to the Division 3 state runner- up trophy last season. “I think the outside world assumed we were going to take a step back from last year.
“But I knew from day one that these guys were motivated to get back to this point and do this again. Whether 9-0 was a goal or not, I don’t know, but it’s exciting for these kids to be able to do it for a second year in a row.”
Kern’s captains made sure the Lions didn’t get ahead of themselves. They made repeating as conference champs one of the team’s priorities.
“It was up there,” said senior running back Jack Himmelspach, who rushed eight times for 107 yards and two touchdowns Thursday. “Going into the season, before we really knew how good we were, that was going to be our goal. We wanted to at least win conference and then see how we did there.”
Senior wide receiver/ defensive back Jake Schara, who returned an interception 62 yards for a TD, concurred.
“Winning conference was our first goal,” Schara said. “We wanted to repeat and show that we’re even better than last year.”
In order to continue their conference reign, the Lions had to replace a substantial number of starters from last season.
“Depending on how you define it, we lost seven or eight starters on each side of the ball,” Kern said. “One thing we’ve tried to do here is build up the culture of our sub-levels.”
The captains realize how vital it was that the varsity newcomers contribute.
“We have a bunch of guys who were pulled up from JV,” Himmelspach said. “Matthew McNerney is the first guy who comes to mind. He played mostly JV last year, and now he’s a key part of our offense and defense.
“There are other guys like that. They did a lot of offseason work to make that step up, and they’re doing a great job.”
Shorewood/Messmer came into the contest riding high at 7-1, but Eisenhower took command of the game early and maintained it.
Himmelspach carried three times for 39 yards to highlight the Lions’ opening drive, which covered 49 yards following a 20-yard punt return by junior Max Lewis. Himmelspach’s 5-yard touchdown run accounted for the game’s first points, and he and his team struck again less than 5 minutes later.
Lewis returned a punt 15 yards to put Eisenhower back in business at the Shorewood 40, and Himmelspach broke a 25-yard touchdown run on a counter five plays later.
The score remained 14-0 until the 4:13 mark of the second quarter when the Lions capped a five-play, 50-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Gabe Seifert to junior running back Eli Hoelke, who put Ike in the red zone with a 25-yard run.
Hoelke rushed four times for 111 yards and a score and caught three passes for 31 yards and two TDs.
The Greyhounds gave their fans something to cheer about when senior quarterback Aaron Elmers hit junior wide receiver Sam Campbell with a 39-yard touchdown pass with 42.2 seconds left before halftime.
That left more than enough time, however, for Eisenhower to strike again. Seifert connected with junior wide receiver Ben Buechel for 17 yards, then found him again with a 43-yard TD strike as Buechel beat the defense and backpedaled into the end zone with 17.5 seconds left in the half. Seifert finished 7-of-7 for 105 yards.
The Lions put the game away early in the third quarter. Seifert threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Hoelke at the 8:26 mark, then Schara recorded Eisenhower’s sixth defensive touchdown of the season with his interception return at 6:38.
“I knew my corner had the guy locked down,” Schara said. “I waited, and as soon as I saw the ball tipped, I caught it and ran to open grass.
“It felt great. It was the first pick six of my career.”
Lewis made his second interception of the game to thwart Shorewood/Messmer’s next series, and the Lions extended their margin in the fourth quarter on a 79-yard run by Hoelke, and a 3-yard keeper by junior quarterback Gabe Olson.
“Our defense feeds our offense a lot of times, but one thing that has gotten me excited in the last month of our season is our offense has created an identity of its own,” Kern said. “We’ve seen Gabe Seifert’s growth as a quarterback. We’re seeing the growth of our run game, with Eli Hoelke adding to what Jack Himmelspach’s been doing.”
The Lions are optimistic about their playoff prospects.
“I think our experience from last year is going to help us in the playoffs,” Himmelspach said. “That was unexplored territory for us going in last year. Going to Madison wasn’t really talked about. It was a goal, but it wasn’t really believable.
“Now, with that experience, getting to Madison has become a program goal. That’s how we’re thinking now.”