Normally when the football is bouncing loose on the field, coaches want their players to just fall on it.
Not Tomah High School football coach Brad Plueger. When he saw defensive back Luke Buckendahl eyeing up the loose ball, he wanted more than an ordinary fumble recovery.
“It was about six yards away, and I was yelling ‘scoop and score,’” Plueger said.
Buckendahl complied. He returned a West Salem fumble 37 yards for a touchdown that helped seal Tomah’s 21-7 victory over the Panthers in a Mississippi Valley Conference football contest at E.J. McKean Field.
Tomah was clinging to a 14-7 lead late in the third quarter when West Salem quarterback Noah LaFleur was tracked down and stripped of the football by defensive end Evan Westpfahl. The ball bounced toward a sea of black Tomah jerseys with Buckendahl having the cleanest shot at a recovery.
“I saw the ball lying on the ground, and I made a break on it,” Buckendahl said. “I scooped it up and did everything I could not to drop it. I almost tripped, but I held on to it.”
Plueger said Buckendahl made the right decision.
“It was just the amount of guys from our team that were there,” Plueger said. “Sometimes the ball bounces that way.”
It was Tomah’s second fumble recovery of the quarter. With the scored tied 7-7, West Salem (0-5 MVC, 0-8 overall) was poised to take its first lead of the contest. They took the opening kickoff of the second half and marched 59 yards in eight plays before Tomah defensive end Jairon Pierce recovered a Panthers’ fumble at the Tomah seven-yard line.
From there, the Timberwolves, who gained just 52 yards in a 48-6 defeat at D.C. Everest a week earlier, launched their most satisfying touchdown drive of the season. They overcame a holding penalty and reached their own 42-yard line before quarterback Justin Gerke uncorked a long sideline pass to Evan Long. He caught the ball over two West Salem defenders at the 30-yard line, spun around and saw nobody between him and the end zone.
“I saw the ball was behind me, so I had to reach up and go over the top,” Long said. “I caught it, and they both went down, and I just took off.”
Tomah took a 7-0 lead on its second possession of the game, when running back Brandon Lueck busted loose on a 30-yard touchdown run. The Timberwolves produced just 38 yards and one first down the rest of the half.
West Salem scored two seconds before halftime, when LeFleur tossed a five-yard touchdown pass to Zach Neimeier.
The Timberwolves snapped a five-game losing streak. The last three losses were by a combined score of 143-6, and Plueger gave credit to his 13-player senior class for “not giving up on our program.” He also said homecoming week arrived at an opportune time.
“Homecoming might have actually helped us this week,” Plueger said. “Sometimes it’s such a distraction, but I believe winning homecoming was a real motivation for our kids.”
“It’s crazy because we’ve been hyped up all week,” Buckendahl said. “We had a lot of school spirit tonight.”
The Timberwolves are 3-5 and head to La Crosse Logan for their season finale in a contest that will decide fifth place in the MVC standings. Westpfahl, a member of Tomah’s 28-player junior class, said the last two games should provide a launching pad for next season.
“It means lot,” Westpfahl said. “Hopefully next year we can make the playoffs.”