The list of injured starters was long, but the list of players who stepped up was even longer.
One of the latter was Damien Hernandez.
Hernandez snatched a jump ball pass in double coverage with 50 seconds left to score the winning touchdown in Tomah's 22-17 Mississippi Valley Conference victory over Sparta Friday at E.H. McKean Field.
It was Tomah's first victory over Sparta since 2015, and it returned the gold ball − the traveling trophy at stake between the two rivals − to the Timberwolves.
"It means a lot that the gold ball is coming back, especially after ... geting the win with all the injuries we've had," Tomah coach Brad Plueger said. "We had to make some guys go two ways ... so many people stepped up. It was a really good high school football game."
Hernandez caught seven passes for 103 yards, two of which came on Tomah's final drive that consumed the final half of the fourth quarter.
Sparta controlled the ball for the first half of the fourth quarter and marched 56 yards inside the Tomah five-yard line. That's where the Tomah defense stiffened and forced the Spartans to settle for a 21-yard field goal from Bryce Edwards.
Keeping Sparta out of the end zone was huge. Kade Gnewikow returned the ensuing kickoff to the Tomah 32 with 6:48 left, and the Timberwolves embarked on a methodical drive with no play covering more than 11 yards until the touchdown. Most of the yardage came from running back Erick Gomez, who gained nearly half of his 107 rushing yards during the drive, including five yards on a fourth-and-one with two minutes left.
The touchdown came on a second-and-nine from the 15. Quarterback Justin Gerke found Hernandez in the left corner of the end zone, and like most of his catches, it came in heavy traffic.
Plueger said Hernandez was ready for extra responsibility
"He came into my office early this week ... he said, 'I want the football,'" Plueger said.
Plueger said Hernandez "wasn't trying to be rude about it," but believed he could carry more of the workload with Tomah's other starting wide receiver, Boone Mathison, sidelined by an injury.
"He made plays all night long − obviously a huge one over two guys for the touchdown," Plueger said.
The game still wasn't over after the Hernandez catch. Kickoff specialist Ray Gomez was supposed to deliver a long kickoff, but he wound up with a kick that went high in the air and landed near the Sparta 40-yard line. The Spartans didn't field the ball cleanly, and it squirted through at least a half dozen hands before Tomah's Marques Fritsche finally seized possession.
Two quarterback kneel downs then sealed the outcome.
Tomah's first score looked very much like the last. The Timberwolves took the opening kickoff at their own 33 and drove deep into Sparta territory before a holding penalty left a third-and-23 at the Sparta 24. The Timberwolves got out of the hole when Hernandez sprinted to the left corner of the end zone, and Gerke trusted him with a jump ball that gave Tomah a 6-0 lead.
It stayed that way until late in the first half, when the Spartans turned junior quarterback Cole Wisniewski loose on the read option. After the Spartans recovered a Tomah fumble at the Timberwolves' 40, they needed just five plays, including three runs of 32 yards by Wisniewski, to reach the end zone with 3:19 left in the half. Edwards booted the extra point for a 7-6 Sparta lead.
The Spartans took the opening kickoff of the second half, and Wisniewski went back to work. He ripped off five rushes for 36 yards during a 60-yard drive that was capped by a one-yard quarterback keeper. Edwards booted the extra point for a 14-6 Sparta advantage.
The Timberwolves responded with an impressive drive of their own. They marched 80 yards in 14 plays and converted two third downs, including a 20-yard halfback option pass from Nathaniel Spears to Gnewikow.
After Tomah got inside the five, the Spartans appeared on the verge of making a goal-line stand. However, on fourth-and-goal from the three, Gomez slammed into the right side of the line behind Blake Moseley and Rhett Wilson and before getting stacked up just as he crossed the plane of the goal line.
On the two-point conversion, Gerke rolled to his right and then threw cross field to tight end Mason Gerke, who caught the ball with nobody within five yards of him to deadlock the contest at 14-14.
Except for Wisniewski's forays into the open field, Tomah's shorthanded defense bottled up Sparta's offense, which had 50 yards passing and 41 rushing yards from players not named Wisniewski.
It was a gutsy effort from a group missing defensive tackle Jake Tahtinen, defensive end Jarion Pierce and cornerback Mathison. In addition, inside linebacker Nolan Young was pressed into service at fullback due to Angel Burkhalter's season-ending injury.
Eric Gomez, a starting outside linebacker, was also pressed into two-way service. He ran the ball 20 times from the tailback position and got much of his yardage after contact.
"(Gomez) gave us an electric spark," Plueger said.
Tomah improved to 2-2 overall and 1-1 in the Mississippi Valley Conference.
The Timberwolves return to action Friday, Sept. 14 with a trip to Holmen in a 7 p.m. kickoff at Holmen High School.
Tomah Journal editor Steve Rundio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
T - Hernandez 24 pass from J. Gerke (kick failed), 6:45.
S - Wisniewski 3 run (Edwards kick), 3:19.
S - Wisniewski 1 run (Edwards kick), 7:53,
T - E. Gomez 3 run (M. Gerke pass from J. Gerke), 1:45.
S - Edwards 21 FG, 6:54.
T - Hernandez 15 pass from J. Gerke (E. Gomez run), :50.
First downs - S 13, T 21. Rushing - S 31-182, T 41-170. Passes - S 3-7-1, T 11-17-2. Passing yards - S 50, T 165. Fumbles - S 2-2, T 3-2. Penalties - S 7-62, T 7-45.
Rushing: S - Wisniewski 20-141, Falmngar 2-15, Church 2-10, Edwards 4-12, Wendorf 3-4. T - E. Gomez 20-107, Spears 11-41, Young 4-10, Cruz 2-2, Gnewikow 1-9, J. Gerke 3-1.
Passing: S - Wisniewski 3-7-1-50. T - J. Gerke 10-16-2-145, Spears 1-1-0-20.
Receiving: S - Church 1-12, Milne 1-14, Amos 1-24. T - Hernandez 7-103, Young 2-17, M. Gerke 1-25, Gnewikow 1-20.