ONALASKA — Coach Tom Yashinsky couldn’t have envisioned a better start.
First, a surprised onside kick to begin the game gave his Onalaska High School football team an extra possession before Landon Peterson took a jet sweep toss 48 yards on the game’s first play from scrimmage. In the blink of an eye, it was a seven-point lead just 12 seconds into the game.
From there — outside of a small blip in the second quarter — it was all Hilltoppers, as they sprinted past Portage 63-22 in a WIAA Division 2 playoff matchup Friday night at Onalaska. The Hilltoppers play at second-seeded Baraboo on Thursday for a second-round game that concludes the season.
All week long, the Hilltoppers (5-2) studied the film and saw that the front line of the Portage return unit liked to bail and leave early. So the Hilltoppers planned on stealing an extra possession and it worked to perfection.
“We practiced it multiple times this week and Ben (Faas) was really good at just dribbling it,” Yashinsky said. “So we said, ‘Hey we are going to take the ball right away and steal a possession.’ It was a quick start and we aren’t the best on special teams, so if we can steal one, we will.”
The ensuing play, Peterson took the forward pitch off of a jet sweep 48 yards to kick off a 28-point first quarter that was capped off by a 55-yard interception return for a touchdown from Sam Pica to give the Hilltoppers a 28-0 lead with about two minutes left in the opening frame.
But give the Warriors (2-6) credit because they refused to quit. They forced fumbles on back-to-back Hilltopper possessions and offensively were able to find a bit of a rhythm with running back Jordan Starr, who found the end zone twice on the night. His first touchdown was a 3-yard scamper that made it 28-8 and his success on the ground helped with the second score after quarterback Gavin Thompson found Jaden Kikkert for an 18-yard touchdown pass on a play-action fake to make it 28-16 midway through the second quarter.
“We did some good things,” Portage coach Shane Haak said. “There are some things the past few weeks that we have been able to build on top of each other. Obviously, there were some inconsistencies ... but we put some drives together and obviously they scored some points in the first quarter. But we played well in that second quarter.”
Down 28-16, the Warriors were in Hilltopper territory but a sack on fourth-and-10 halted the drive. That play set up another barrage from the Hilltoppers.
Quarterback Ayden Larson connected with Ben Stuhr for a 13-yard score on the ensuing possession to make it 35-16. Cody Skifton then collected his second interception of the night to give the ball back to the offense. And once again they took advantage with Larson finding Hudson Weber, who tightroped the sideline for a 23-yard touchdown reception to increase the lead to 43-16.
It appeared that would be the halftime score, but Portage decided to try a long pass inside their own 30. Weber picked it off and ran it back with no time left for the Hilltoppers second pick-six of the half.
“The middle six in the second quarter, I wasn’t super happy with that,” Yashinsky said. “But (John) Bushman made some changes on defense and shored that up. You just can’t fumble the ball. We had to take care of the ball. We only had one punt tonight.”
The Hilltoppers were without a number of starters because of COVID-19 contact tracing. In fact, a number of linemen played both ways because that’s what they simply had to do. For some, it was their first time playing offensive line since freshman year, as was the case for Gino Angelini, who filled in at left guard.
“It’s a bit of a culture shock but you get used to it,” Angelini said. “It kind of reminded me of my freshman year,. You aren’t really sure what to expect or what you are going to be doing so you play both sides. It was nostalgic in a way.”
Yashinsky did say that if the Hilltoppers played tomorrow, they would have a full team ready to go.
But on Friday night, they didn’t need them.
Michael Savarin was spectacular, gashing Portage for 187 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown run, on just 14 carries. Dane Woods also finished over the century mark, tallying 110 yards and a 59-yard touchdown on seven carries.
“I have to give it all to the offensive linemen,” Savarin said. “They really did all the work tonight.”
Larson finished 11 of 14 for 205 yards and four touchdowns. Michael Skemp caught five passes for 92 yards and a touchdown to lead the receiving corps.
“They are a good team,” Haak said. “They have a lot of different weapons offensively.”
The Hilltoppers will now play at Baraboo, which took care of Tomah 43-6 on the other side of the bracket, on Thursday.
“It’s going to be a great game,” Yashinsky said. “Baraboo is a great team. We saw them on film after they beat Portage 38-0. They play really, really good defense and have a really tough quarterback. It’s a good game to end on.”
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