No one playing for the Aquinas High School football team fully understands what is in store at Veterans Memorial Field on the UW-La Crosse campus Friday night.
They know that hosting Platteville as a No. 4 seed in the WIAA Division 5 playoffs is a big deal, but there will be a sense of urgency and pressure that none of them have felt before on a football field.
With that said, the Blugolds (6-3) are also competing with nothing to lose when it comes to the big picture. Aquinas hasn’t competed in a playoff game since 2012, when it advanced to the second round.
Doing that again will require a solid performance and applying things learned in losses to Prairie du Chien, Mineral Point and Lancaster, who closed out the regular season with a combined record of 25-2 and also host first-round games.
The job of weaving all of this together belongs to coach Tom Lee, who moved up from assistant coach to head coach prior to the 2013 season. Lee was an assistant on the last Aquinas team that won a playoff game and on the last Aquinas team to win a state championship (2007).
“Heck ya, I’m ready to go,” Lee said. “It’s been a while, but let’s do it.”
The Blugolds retained the home game after an initial vote at the seeding meeting, and a Platteville (6-3) appeal didn’t change the venue.
While the Blugolds came up short in a 7-6 game against Prairie du Chien in Week 1, the Hillmen were trounced by the Blackhawks (8-1) 42-7 last week. That should give Aquinas some level of confidence to to with what was gained from beating Onalaska Luther and snapping a two-game losing streak last week.
“We know how good those teams that beat us the two weeks before (Mineral Point and Lancaster) are,” Lee said. “Our guys were a little frustrated at halftime (against the Knights) after having the ball three times even though we scored twice.
“But we made some adjustments, got some takeaways and won while being very businesslike, which is what we needed to be.”
The biggest defensive challenge that awaits Aquinas is Platteville quarterback Tyler McClain, who has passed for 1,571 yards and 13 touchdowns. He has also been intercepted 10 times, while the Blugolds have picked off opposing quarterbacks 11 times.
Platteville’s run defense allows an average of 124 yards per game, so it will take some work to get Will Cambio (634 yards, 7 TDs) and Aiden Lee (96 yards against Onalaska Luther last week) space to run.
A look at some of the other playoff games involving teams from the Coulee Region:
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Central (5-4) hasn’t played its best games the last two weeks, but having Johnny Davis will always make them a threat, and that is the case when facing off with Milton (8-1) on Friday.
The Red Hawks won the South Division of the Badger Conference and suffered its only loss at the hands of Monroe (34-28), which opens the playoffs at Onalaska in Division 3 game. Milton averages nearly 40 points and 255 rushing yards per game with quarterback Evan Jordahl (890 passing yards, 548 rushing yards, 20 TD passes) leading the way.
Davis has passed for 1,666 yards and 15 TDs and rushed for 1,200 yards and 16 TDs and will be the top target for the Milton defense.
Holmen (6-3) has to avoid turnovers at Watertown (6-3) if it wants another game because that is why it ended up with three losses and in third place in the MVC.
The Goslings can score but they gave up 41 points in a loss to Milton last week. The Vikings need to stay the course with their triple option and fullback Brett Holden (912 yards, 14 TDs) and finish drives.
Holmen’s primary defensive focus will be quarterback Ethan Pauly (2,002 passing yards, 25 passing TDs, 388 rushing yards, 9 TDs).
Sparta (7-2) should have its hands full with Reedsburg (7-2), which was only beaten by DeForest (9-0) and Waunakee (8-1) this season, but it also has senior Cole Wisniewski, who has impacted games in many ways all season.
The Spartans have to get the most out of Wisniewski, who has rushed for 1,066 yards and 13 TDs while passing for 776 yards and 8 TDs. Wisniewski was also fantastic defensively in wins over Central and Holmen.
Reedsburg counters with a rushing offense that averages 280 yards per game and is led by Casey Campbell (830 yards, 12 TDs).
G-E-T (8-1) hasn’t lost a game since Week 2, and that shouldn’t change on Friday. The running question for the Red Hawks each week seems to center around just how much they can dominate an opponent.
The Red Hawks host Marshall (2-7), which earned its spot by going 2-2 in the Capitol-South. The Cardinals have only scored 92 points this season, and their defense could be overwhelmed against the running duo of Bryce Burns (146 yards per game, 18 TDs) and Luke Vance (111 yards per game, 14 TDs) in an offense that has scored more than 60 points three times.