It didn’t take long for Andy Hulst to figure what the most important game of the season was if he was going to coach the Westby High School football team.
He was an assistant coach in the program for seven years before taking it over prior to the 2014 season, and what he learned upon arrival remains unchanged: Beat Viroqua.
With a halftime celebration for the Westby teams of 1998 and 1978 — it won the WIAA Division 4 state title that year — and an outright Coulee Conference championship on the line for Friday’s game between the two schools in Westby, there is plenty of motivation for the Norsemen to do just that.
But there is a lot on the line for Viroqua, too. The Blackhawks (5-3, 2-2) are trying to become playoff eligible and get their first postseason game since 2004.
“For us it’s about trying to secure a conference championship — undefeated — which we haven’t done in (18) years,” Hulst said. “For Viroqua, it’s a big game, too, because it (the Blackhawks) win, they’ll get in the playoffs. So you’ll see great effort from both sides.
“I expect a good, physical game, and it’ll be a hard-fought one for sure.”
The last time Westby tasted a conference title was in 2011, when it shared the championship with West Salem. This year, Hulst is hoping his team that consists of a 21-man senior class can earn the title outright for the first time since going 7-0 and finishing a game ahead of second-place Black River Falls in 2000.
The title push is being done through the arm of Alex Gluch and legs of Ryan Daines. With Gluch as quarterback — and 1,113 passing yards and 15 touchdown passes and under his belt — and Daines as a talented running back with 22 rushing and receiving touchdowns to his credit, the Norsemen have seen steady offensive production and average 41.5 points per game.
The most important task defensively will be the containment of Viroqua junior Tyler “Truck” Hannah, who has rushed for 1,043 yards and seven touchdowns.
“I’m not sure why they call him Truck, but I think it might play into him being a truck and running kids over (on the field),” Hulst said. “He’s a tough running back and he’s going to be physical. We’ve been trying to replicate that in practice as best as we can, but we can’t totally do that. We can only try to pinpoint where he will be on the field.”
But the Blackhawks have also used their passing game much more in recent weeks, and Kasey Hammond has passed for 701 and 10 touchdowns. He’s passed for 308 yards and six touchdowns in Viroqua’s last three games.
The halftime celebration is one that takes place every year for teams from 20 and 40 years ago. This one just happens to have the school’s first state football champion as part of it.
In homecoming tradition, coaches and players from both teams will be present and recognized during the game.
And even after all these years, Hulst still hears about the past teams’ rivalry with the Blackhawks.
“You hear guys who played 20 or 30 years ago talking about the big Viroqua game and how big of a deal it was,” he said. “I think both teams have this game circled on the calendar every year.”