Sparta makes football history
You could tell from the minute the Spartans took the field at Northland College in Ashland Friday night - there was something special in the air.
No, it wasn’t the brisk breeze coming off Lake Superior – it was the quite confidence of a Sparta High School football team that was looking for the first playoff victory in school history.
And with that quite confidence, the Spartans easily dispensed of second-seeded Ashland 36-8 to advance to the second round of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association Division 3 football playoffs.
“Ultimately, the kids earned everything they got, to be able to turn it around, keep their heads up and keep fighting after a 1-4 start and put themselves in a position to be playoff eligible,” said Spartan first-year head coach Adam Dow. “It took a lot of work and a lot of effort.”
Dow, of course, is referring to Sparta’s improbable run just to get into the playoffs.
After a victory in the season opener at Black River Falls, Sparta suffered four tough losses in a row and looked to be out of the playoff picture.
But an upset victory over La Crosse Central at midseason gave Sparta the momentum to finish with three wins in its last four games – sneaking into the post-season with an at-large bid.
And the Spartans made the best of it, using a lock-down defense to upset the Oredockers and make history as the first Sparta squad to earn a post-season victory.
Dow said he sensed Sparta’s quite confidence early on.
“You could tell that it didn’t matter who was across that line – they were there to win,” he offered. “Our defense played really well again.”
Sparta held an explosive Ashland offense to just 150 total yards.
“Ultimately, the defense has been the difference in the second half of the season,” continued Dow. “They have been flying around, sending a message with their physicality, stopping opposing teams from doing what they want to do.”
A couple of early penalties on offense stymied the Spartans in a scoreless first quarter, but Sparta began clicking on offense in the second stanza Friday night.
Cole Wisniewski scored on an eight-yard run early in the second quarter to give Sparta a 6-0 advantage, and tacked on a four-yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion in the final two minutes to extend the Spartan lead to 14-0.
Possibly sensing that it would have trouble slowing down the Spartan offense in the second half, Ashland tried a fake punt in the closing seconds of the first half, but was unable to fool the Sparta defense and gave up the ball on downs deep in its own territory.
Sparta capitalized quickly, when Bryce Edwards bowled his into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown run and followed with a two-point conversion to give the Spartans a 22-0 lead heading into the break.
A two-yard touchdown run by Wisniewski late in the third quarter extended the Sparta advantage to 29-0.
Ashland’s only touchdown came midway through the fourth quarter on a five-yard touchdown run, but Sparta answered late in the frame, when backup quarterback Brett Stuessel capped off a nice drive with a one-yard touchdown run.
“Offensively, we didn’t have the big 70 or 80 yard explosive plays, but when I went back over the game film, we had a big pass to Haydn Guns and four or five runs of 20-plus yards,” said Dow. “We’ve been pretty efficient scoring TDs in the red zone. We’re doing a pretty good job of finishing off drives when we get inside the 20. We had three touchdowns by Cole and one by Bryce – all inside the 20 – and Brett hand a nice drive when he was in there at the end.”
Sparta finished with 3317 yards on offense, including 301 on the ground and 36 through the air.
Edwards led Sparta’s ground game with 109 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, while Wisniewski finished with 90 yards and three TDs on 18 carries.
Luke Wendorf had a nice game carrying the ball as well, picking up 51 yards on 10 carries, while Stuessel carried the ball four times for 37 yards and a score.
Wisniewski completed two of six passes for 36 yards, including a 33-yard completion to Guns.
“This validates the time and effort the kids put in,” said Dow.
“We’ve beaten two conference championship teams. We beat Mississippi Valley Conference champion Holmen and Great Northern Conference champion Ashland,” he continued. “When it comes down to putting a stamp on this, that’s exactly what the program needs and the team needs. We have a sense of confidence as a team. You have to earn that – and the kids earned it. This just shows that these kids have the ability to compete with anybody if they put the time and effort in.”
Sparta advances to Level 2 of the WIAA Division 3 playoffs, and will travel to New Richmond to face the No. 3 seed Tigers in a 7 p.m. match-up at New Richmond Friday night.