Wolves' dream season comes to an unfortunate end with loss to fifth-ranked Mustangs
This was supposed to be the year.
After a miraculous run to the 2016 state championship game, and with the core of that group back for their senior seasons, the Harris-Lake Park football team was supposed to not only get back to the championship game in 2017, but win the first state championship in program history.
They entered the season as the top-ranked team in the 8-Player classification, nudging out 2016 champion Don Bosco in the first week of Associated Press rankings.
They had it all.
First Team All-Staters at running back and linebacker. A second-year quarterback who led the classification in touchdown passes a year ago. Big, physical and talented offensive and defensive fronts that were going to make life difficult for opposing lines. A solid group of young athletes that would add depth and gain valuable varsity experience. And a head coach who rebuilt the program from scratch, and oversaw everything from the time this current crop of athletes were in Pampers.
Then, after just one quarter of football, it all began to unravel.
First Team All-Staters Keegan Carpenter and Trevor Gunderson exited the season opener with lower leg injuries. Carpenter was expected to miss just two weeks, but a later diagnosis discovered further damage that required surgery, ending his season. Gunderson was put on the shelf for at least four weeks with a broken bone in his ankle.
The Wolves soldiered on.
A Week 3 loss to fourth-ranked Remsen St. Mary's put them in scramble mode. A big win over Clay Central-Everly and a bye week was a welcome relief. Gunderson made a speedy return for a homecoming win over West Bend-Mallard, but the win cost the Wolves dearly.
Senior linebacker and homecoming king Zach Heikens went down with a season-ending ACL injury in the first quarter. Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins was called for a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, forcing him to miss the rest of the contest and an additional game — a Week 7 matchup with perennial power Newell-Fonda this past Friday.
The fifth-ranked Mustangs put the final nail in the Wolves' coffin with a 20-7 win on a rain-soaked night in Newell.
Coach Lane Gunderson saw the writing on the wall.
"It was a struggle for us," he said following the Wolves' loss. "With Zach getting hurt and Bryce — I feel unjustly — not being able to play because of what happened the week before, we were in scramble mode. I thought the guys played as hard as they could. But a super wet field plays right into a team that runs 57 times and passes three, it plays right into their hands. Our quickness advantage was negated by the field conditions. It was just kind of a night that a lot of things were stacked against us. I thought everybody played as hard as they could and gave it everything they had."
The Wolves head coach was especially upset by Perkins' suspension.
He contacted IHSAA officials multiple times throughout the week to appeal the decision. He even contacted West Bend-Mallard's coach to clarify that Perkins was not guilty of the infraction. It did not matter.
"I feel the worst for the players who were hurt and for Bryce," Coach Gunderson said. "I don't care what anybody says, (he) shouldn't have been kicked out of the first game and then missed the next game for something that nobody can explain to me. I called down to the state office and they said he was kicked out of the game for two unsportsmanlike (penalties). I asked them what they were for. They said one was for swearing — which Bryce admitted to — and the second one was for driving an opponent to the ground and starting a fight. So I went to West Bend-Mallard's coach and established there was no fight. I told (the IHSAA) that I wanted them to explain to me what the second unsportsmanlike penalty is for then if there was no fight … and no one there can tell me why. That's something I have a huge problem with because you're taking away a young man's opportunity to play in what was essentially a playoff game. Whoever won got in and whoever didn't was not. To take that away and have nobody be able to tell me why is incredibly frustrating for us and Bryce the most. But it also penalizes the teammates that he's worked so hard with since he was a little kid. That just had me to the boiling point anyway."
Perkins' absence forced the Wolves to be extremely one-dimensional, which played right into the Mustangs hands.
With Trevor Gunderson behind center as a wildcat quarterback, the Wolves struggled to get anything going, as they rushed for just 13 yards on 27 carries and completed just six passes for 65 yards a touchdown and two interceptions.
Newell-Fonda jumped out to a 14-0 at the half before holding on for the win to edge the Wolves for the second playoff spot in the district.
Defensively, the Wolves were led by sophomore Abdulla Elbuytari, who had 16 tackles. Lucas Gunderson had 10.5 tackles and a tackle for loss. Bret Sohn had 8.5 tackles. Trevor Gunderson had eight tackles. Braeton Nitzschke had 7.5 tackles and two tackles for loss on the night.
Coach Gunderson was proud of how his athletes battled but, days later, struggled to come to grips with how quickly the season slipped away.
"To have the game not go so well, I told the kids afterward that I was proud of them," he said. "I just feel so bad because this team had so much promise and had such a great attitude and had guys who put in everything I've ever asked … For them to not even have a chance to play (together) with all of the injuries this year, it's just kind of an emotional night. I'm still kind of not over it.
"I think it's just, I don't even know how to explain it," he continued. "We've been so excited for (this season). I talked with the coaches before this season and we talked about how it is so special to have a group that has worked so hard and we were looking forward to it. Lots of years, you're looking forward to the next year and we're like not thinking anything about next year. We're just going to enjoy this season and enjoy being around the guys who have done everything we've asked. To have that group of guys only get to play for one quarter of the first game of the season, it's almost like surreal. Last year, it seemed like the stars just kind of aligned … We thought we were going to be really, really solid again and were just looking forward to the opportunity to get to work with the guys. To never get to see that group get to play together is just heartbreaking. There was so much to look forward to and the guys really haven't been able to enjoy it like they did last year because we've just been scrambling."
Still, in the face of all of that adversity, the Wolves coach said his athletes have never flinched.
"It kind of makes me feel like a liar," he said. "Because I've told them that if they work hard and do as good as they can and do all of the workouts and be good guys, things'll work out. It's like it's been exactly the opposite of that. We've had injuries. We had that happen to Bryce, which I don't think should have happened ever. Even through all that, they're much more resilient than me. Keegan has had a great attitude. He hasn't questioned why it's happened to him. Trev worked his hardest to come back and never complained about it. Now, of course, Zach has his heart ripped away from him. He's the homecoming king and gets injured in the first quarter of the homecoming game. Then for Bryce to have to sit there and watch us and not be able to help when his guys are out there. I just feel so sorry for my guys. It's weird to say but, as a coach, I look up to them. It's just, I dunno, the only word I have for it is heartbreaking. I'm just glad that they have such good character and that they can handle it so well."
Now, with the playoffs out of the picture, the Wolves (4-2, 2-2) will set their sights on ending the season, and sending off the seniors, on a positive note. First up is ninth-ranked Graettinger-Terril/Ruthven-Ayrshire (4-2, 2-2) this Friday in Lake Park.
"I'm just going to tell them that they need to focus on doing as well as they can and finish the season on a positive note," he said. "It's going to be very, very tough against GT/RA because that's a team that has a ton of seniors, a ton of depth. The good news is we have Bryce back. We've had another week to play. Trev will keep improving and keep getting closer to 100 percent. Hopefully, we won't play on a field that's a mud bog that negates some of Trev and (Dalton) Nicks' lateral quickness and speed. Hopefully, we can put together a good plan and win these last two games and have a positive finish to our season and their careers. That's something that I'm going to have a hard time coming to grips with. I've never had a group like them and I've been doing this a long time now. It isn't like next year will be the same thing, because it won't be."