Consider the Sparta High School football team’s “revenge tour” officially on schedule.
The Spartans (3-0, 1-0 MVC) are riding high one-third of the way through the season, and they have knocked off two teams that handed them tough losses last season — Westby and Logan — in consecutive weeks.
Last season’s defeats at the hands of the Norsemen and Rangers were part of a four-game losing streak that eventually defined Sparta’s season. The Spartans bounced back to win five of the next six games in making a run to the WIAA Division 3 quarterfinals. The other losses in that stretch — Tomah and Onalaska — are waiting for Sparta the next two weeks.
Senior quarterback and defensive back Cole Wisniewski made a bevy of big plays Friday in Sparta’s 39-16 win over Logan. He accounted for four touchdowns: one rushing, two passing, and one on a 90-yard punt return despite the fact he’d never practiced as a returner. Wisniewski said the motivation of getting payback for past defeats is working for Sparta.
“All of us going up, we were in the phase where Sparta wasn’t good at football. That’s all that it ever was,” Wisniewski said. “Last year, coming back from those (losses) was huge, because we wanted to show we’re a new team, and this is a new era for Sparta.
“Same thing goes for this year. We want to come out a beat every conference team we play. We hadn’t beat Logan since my freshman year, so this is a big win for us.”
The Spartans’ hot start to the year can be boiled down to their ability to own momentum in games. They’ve shown they can seize momentum when things are going right, but more importantly, that they can recover and stop opponents’ momentum when they aren’t.
There will be plenty for coach Adam Dow to correct this week as Sparta gets ready for a rivalry game against Tomah (2-1, 0-1). Sparta had nine penalties Friday, came out slow and fell behind 16-7. But the former UW-La Crosse player knows how quickly his team can refocus and get things back on track is special.
Sparta did so against Logan with a four-play, 71-yard scoring drive right before halftime to get the score to 16-14, and it did so against Westby in Week 2 with a quick-strike score after the Norsemen had pulled within a score.
“When the wheels start going like that, it’s very easy to get on each other and to hang your head,” Dow said. “The real question you have to answer is, ‘What are you going to do to stop it?’ That was the talk at halftime. Who’s going to come out and make a big play? Who’s going to take over this game?”
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Wisniewski did his part with the go-ahead punt return, and the defense was able to quell three consecutive Logan (1-2, 0-1) drives in the second half with interceptions. Sparta intercepted four passes, two of which came from senior Haydn Guns, while Brett Stuessel took one pick 55 yards for a score.
Guns said Sparta assistant Larry Noll’s influence on the secondary has given the group confidence to go after the ball in the air. That smart aggressive play will be crucial against pass-heavy conference foes like Onalaska and Central.
“It all starts with practice, and focus in practice,” Guns said. “Coach Noll is always telling us to keep our eyes where they’re supposed to be.”
Dow said putting Wisniewski on the punt-return unit was a chance to create a “momentum-changer,” but he doesn’t anticipate doing it often. Wisniewski plays both ways, so the limited breaks he does get on specials teams are valuable.
So Guns and the defense, or the special teams unit, creating momentum-changers on their own without Wisniewski at the center of it will be crucial for Sparta’s revenge tour to continue.
“We’re two down of our four-game tour of trying to pick off teams that beat us last year,” Dow said. “We’ll celebrate this one, but then we need to be looking straight at Tomah for our rivalry game.”