The Onalaska High School football team was already in control of an MVC championship game against West Salem when it took possession of the third-quarter kickoff.
And if anyone thought the Hilltoppers felt good about their 21-point lead, they were mistaken.
Onalaska was going for the Panthers’ throats and did so when Ray Heilman caught a pass from quarterback Noah Skifton and looked downfield to fellow wide receiver Landon Skemp.
Heilman’s strike didn’t result in a touchdown, but the 38-yard gain set the tone for the rest of a surprisingly easy 42-21 win over West Salem at Logan’s Swanson Field on Friday.
Onalaska’s offense moved the ball almost at will after its first possession, and its defense made life miserable for the Panthers after their first possession to force a three-way share of the MVC championship.
“Our defense is for real,” Onalaska senior defensive lineman Christian Oliver said. “We’re good on both sides of the ball, and I think we’re in a really good situation right now.”
Onalaska (8-1, 6-1), Holmen (7-2, 6-1) and West Salem (7-2, 6-1) share the championship after the Hilltoppers and Vikings both ended the regular season with victories.
Onalaska’s share of the title gives it consecutive MVC championships for the first time in 20 years.
The Hilltoppers hit West Salem quarterback Ryan Beirne with regular pressure in the backfield and made it tough for 1,000-yard rusher Brendan Holt to find any running room as they tried to lead the Panthers to the outright title and seventh straight victory.
“Alex Duren isn’t a guy who has big stats, but he was a force up front,” Onalaska coach Tom Yashinsky said. “What he does allows Oliver and (Connor) Haggerty to do a lot, and that’s kind of what we saw.”
That trio was a wrecking crew that forced the Panthers to earn every single yard.
Onalaska built a 42-7 lead before West Salem scored twice late to get within three touchdowns.
West Salem’s only real control of the game came when Holt returned the opening kickoff 64 yards to the Onalaska 22. A 19-yard pass from Beirne to Matt Bigley set Holt up for a 2-yard touchdown run and 7-0 lead less than 2 minutes after the game began.
The Hilltoppers were stopped on the first possession but went 74 yards on five plays the next time they got the ball. It ended when Nathan Lubinsky caught a pass and turned it into a 33-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7 late in the first quarter.
Onalaska held West Salem to 96 first-half yards and it began to pull away with a 21-point second quarter. Lubinsky, Skemp and Heilman all scored in the second quarter, and lost fumble by the Panthers helped that along.
Skifton’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Skemp — a nice throw to the back shoulder in the corner of the end zone — was followed by a conversion pass from Skifton to Skemp.
The Panthers fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Onalaska’s first snap after recovering the ball at the West Salem 41 was a strike from Skifton to Heilman.
Skifton was 8-for-10 for 137 yards in the first half and at one point completed seven straight attempts.
The performance helped the Hilltoppers win their sixth consecutive game as they enter the playoffs for the seventh year in a row.
“It’s unique,” Yashinsky said of the championship, “because it’s a group of unsung heroes who have worked very hard for it.
“This kind of came out of the shadows. I don’t think a lot of people expected this. We did, but I don’t think a lot of other people did.”
“We’re good on both sides of the ball, and I think we’re in a really good situation right now.” Christian Oliver, Onalaska lineman