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WIAA DIVISION 3 FOOTBALL

WIAA Division 3 football: West Salem prepped for Monroe in return to state finals

From the WIAA FOOTBALL: Collection of semifinal and finals coverage series

Three years ago, the West Salem High School football team was trying to pick up the pieces following an 0-9 season.

On Friday, the Panthers will play in their first WIAA state championship game in 15 years.

“It’s pretty special,” coach Justin Jehn said. “Our senior class is a group of 17 great guys who have really bought in. They’ve been committed in the weight room and developed their team chemistry in the offseason. They won’t be outworked on the practice field and they teach our underclassmen that. It’s really a benefit to the coaching staff.”

The Panthers (12-1) play for the Division 3 title at 10 a.m. Friday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison against undefeated Monroe.

“We tried our best (Monday) to go through the logistics of the week and answer those questions before turning the page as quickly as we could to prepare on the football field,” Jehn said. “I feel our preparation during the playoffs has been really crucial to our success and we want to do our best to keep that week of preparation consistent for our kids so we’re feeling as routine as possible.”

Speed is at the center of what makes West Salem great, but to make a run into the playoffs has meant having to maintain through a physical playoff slate.

The Panthers average 38.3 points per game and 25.8 first half points but have had to become more of a second-half team over their last two playoff matchups. A late touchdown helped them beat Green Bay Notre Dame in the second round before shutting down Onalaska in the semifinals with a 20-point fourth quarter.

“Our specialty, our skill is our team speed,” Jehn said. “We were able to share the workload during the regular season which provided some fresh legs to a lot of our players. I think our kids have prided themselves on additional conditioning, which keeps us in shape in terms of being able to wear the other team down.”

“I think our kids have been really honest with us. We’ve had some physical games the last few weeks and it takes a few more days to get that soreness out, but we’ve tried our best with our strength and conditioning and recovery techniques to keep our kids fresh and healthy. I think they buy into that as much as our strength coaches have been selling it.”

Another key in their playoff run according to Jehn? Physicality, which will come in handy against Monroe’s Wing-T offense with a nearly run-exclusive attack.

The Cheesemakers (13-0) have run the ball 559 times this season — averaging 9.2 yards per carry — and passed it only 39 times — averaging 14.2 yards per attempt.

“Some people use the pass when they have trouble with running,” Monroe coach Toby Golembiewski said Sunday during state media availability. “We feel that when we take our time in practice and preparation to make sure we have great blocking technique and take the time to make sure we’re calling plays that give us a chance to succeed. We can really limit the times we go to the pass.”

The Cheesemakers have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in seniors Alex Hernandez and Keatin Sweeney, as well as junior Kaden Kruster with 828. Jehr took particular note of Monroe’s “aggressive” offensive line, which includes Navy-commit Isaac Bunker.

“Throughout our playoff run, we’ve been able to match physicality in the box,” Jehn said. “I think we saw that start in week nine with Aquinas and you saw that against Fox Valley and Notre Dame as well. We’re going to attempt to meet that physicality with our box players and use our speed when they need to bounce the ball outside or move laterally.”

The Panthers will try and use their speed on offense to counter the Cheesemakers’ size. Jehn said they have options open for how to attack Monroe. Senior quarterback Brett McConkey has seven touchdown passes over the course of the playoffs, including four of 25 yards or longer.

“Some of it I think we can accomplish by focusing on specific run schemes and things that provide good angles for our players,” Jehn said. “The other side of it you use that speed and find ways to get in space, whether that’s the run game or pass game.”

Jehr also said takeaways will be a factor with the Panthers forcing 39 turnovers this season, led by senior Brennan Kennedy’s six interceptions.

The Cheesemakers have only committed seven all season — five fumbles and two interceptions — while forcing 30.

Kickoff is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday with the broadcast on Bally Sports North.

The West Salem football team won the Coulee Conference by closing out the regular season with a 28-14 win over Aquinas.

The Panthers will play in the WIAA Division 3 state championship next week.

James Krause can be reached by email at James.KrauseJr@lee.net or on Twitter @jkrausepro.

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