"We're making the best of it."
Brookfield Central coach Joel Nellis, in his second year at the helm of the Lancers' program, echoes the sentiment of many coaches and administrators across Wisconsin (and the country) in explaining how he's managing the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on his group of student athletes.
While the Milwaukee area has largely been spared from the dozens of cancellations across Wisconsin in the sport of football this fall through the season's first two weeks, it's hard to not notice the impacts of virus mitigation at each turn. Before Friday's game, the public address announcer sternly reminded fans that masks were required at all times, even while seated. A strictly-enforced cap on fans, in the low 200's, toned down the atmosphere for what was a match-up of two of the state's perennial powerhouse programs. Booming music echoed through Elmbrook with not enough bodies to soak up the sound emanating from the speakers perched atop the grandstand.
Navigating the parking lots and the long trek from the school to the football stadium was anticlimactic. No pop-up tents of vendors, no waves of students dotting the ring around the track of Harrison-Thomas Stadium, no buzz about the new turf field or stadium lighting. In a way, the ensuing contest mimicked the workmanlike environment in which it was played, on a night where temperatures hung out in the low- to mid-40's.
What was supposed to be the celebration of two of Brookfield Central's most famous alums, Olympic gold medalist and world champion Kenny Harrison and former NFL and Wisconsin Badgers lineman Joe Thomas, felt little like a festive occasion and more like a dramatic adaptation of the sport of football. That being said, the prevailing attitude remains a quarter of the way through the shortened 2020 high school football season that nobody should take any game for granted, and for their part, the small amount of fans in attendance did all they could to liven up the energy.
"We're willing to do whatever it takes to play football," said Nellis, aware of how easily Friday night could have been postponed or cancelled with even one minor outbreak in either school.
Despite the fact that 2020 is anything but a normal school year, the varsity athletic competitions still count for historical purposes. Catholic Memorial head coach Bill Young's name can be found all over the state record books, owning 360 victories since taking the head coaching job for the Crusaders in 1978.
2020 is Catholic Memorial's first year as a member of the newly-formed Parkland Conference, a result of statewide realignment that forced the Crusaders out of one of the most powerful leagues in the state, the Classic 8, due to the school's smaller enrollment. Despite being the smallest school in a league that includes the two-time defending Division 1 champion and a host of large Division 1 or 2-sized schools, the Crusaders managed to win 146 of 200 conference games in a 23-year span.
Coming off of a decade in which Catholic Memorial racked up 106 wins and an 82% winning percentage, the Crusaders were set to enter the new season playing new conference foes. That's still the case, as the Crusaders did play another Parkland school in their season opener, Wauwatosa West, hanging on for a hard-fought 21-19 win to open the 2020 season. However, with only five other conference opponents lining up this fall, Catholic Memorial had to look outside of the conference for competition, and found it in the form of the Brookfield Central Lancers for the second week of the season.
Coming off of a Division 4 state championship and owners of a nine-game winning streak coming in, Coach Young and the Crusaders were looking to add a bit more history to Young's legacy: the chance to move into third place all-time on the WFCA Coaching Victories list. First, however, they would have to take down a power program on their home field in the debut of their new turf surface and dedication of Harrison-Thomas Stadium.
Brookfield Central lost its opener 21-20 to a very good Menomonee Falls program, a tough opener, but one that Coach Nellis said gave the team a chance to find ways to improve.
"Our defense was incredible," said Nellis. "They created turnovers, and only allowed 100 yards of offense outside of two big plays."
Nellis credited the work and preparation of his players, as well as defensive coordinator Jeff Lewick, who he trusts.
"The offense needs to pick up production, especially in the run game," said Nellis, citing the fact that the Lancers gained just 42 yards in their season opener. Still, Brookfield Central was in it to the very end.
"Despite all the things that didn't go our way, we still had a chance to win the game," said Nellis. "We have to clean up mental errors."
Uncertainty around who would start at quarterback and running back in the week leading up didn't make the task any easier. Brookfield Central would look to its defense, led by senior Hayden Nelson on the defensive line, to set the tone yet again. Nelson, a Syracuse recruit, recorded an interception in the season-opening loss to Menomonee Falls, and also hauled in four passes for 71 yards.
In addition to the uncertainty of their offensive starters, the Lancers also, like everyone else, had to navigate the week of prep around coronavirus protocol.
"I want to make sure we get this right," said Nellis. "We know how soon this could all be gone," he added, indicating the 20% or so of scheduled games statewide that had been postponed or cancelled in the season's first week.
"We now have to plan out things that we used to take for granted," Nellis continued. "We have a changing group for before and after practice, we have temperature checks, we have to plan where we go before and after team meals. There's a lot on my plate to figure it out. These are things you never used to have to think about."
Pausing, Nellis finished: "I thought our captains were really impactful and helped leaders develop," he said. "We're making the best of it. [These] kids are more flexible than the adults, willing to do whatever it takes to play football."
Tucked in behind the police station and part of a sprawling high school campus only a couple of miles removed from the highway and a large shopping mall, Harrison-Thomas Stadium saw some major updates this past offseason, including earning its new name and the installation of a new turf field. The evidence was present around the fence and near the entry, where straw mixed with mud from freshly-seeded areas torn apart by the construction. On a crisp, calm, and categorically autumn evening in southeastern Wisconsin, the blues and greens of the turf beamed brilliantly through the fog of the breath of the players on the sideline.
In its opening quarter, the game established itself as a defensive struggle. Brookfield Central's two opening drives went three-and-out, while Catholic Memorial turned the ball over on dons after managing just one first down in their opening drive before also contributing a three-and-out to the ledger. Early in the second quarter, it was the home team providing the first points. Brookfield Central capped off a 13-play, 38-yard drive with a 41-yard field goal tucked just inside the left upright and a few feet over the crossbar by Tanner Wallen to make it 3-0 Lancers with just under 11 minutes left in the second quarter.
After trading stalled drives, Catholic Memorial used a drive that included two of the three longest plays in the game, a 48-yard screen from Rory Fox to Alex Oechsner followed two plays later by a 22-yarder of the same play variety and the same two players, to set up a short 23-yard field goal by Kenny Piacsek to tie the game with 49 seconds left in the first half.
In the second half, Brookfield Central found trouble, starting their first drive of the third quarter at their own 11 and, after a sack pushed the offense back, punted from their own end zone. Catholic Memorial used the short field to complete a four-play, 41-yard drive with a touchdown pass from Fox to Charlie Jarvis from 16 yards out to make the score 10-3 Crusaders with 7:31 to play in the third quarter, the first Catholic Memorial lead of the game.
Brookfield Central committed the first turnover of the game on the ensuing drive, as Jarvis picked off Robert Bloom to stall a Lancers drive into Catholic Memorial territory. However, just three plays later, one of the state's top players, Hayden Nelson, strip-sacked Fox to get the ball back for the Lancers deep in Crusaders territory.
From there, it took just four plays, and Cam Devine plowed in from five yards out to cap off a 23-yard drive and, after the conversion, tie the game at 10 apiece with 48 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Catholic Memorial would have an answer, however, and after a penalty tacked on 15 yards to an outstanding return by Oechsner, gave the Crusaders yet another short field to operate on. It took seven plays, but Catholic Memorial pressed the issue to the Brookfield Central one yard line. From there, Fox recorded his second touchdown pass of the evening, a one-yarder to tight end Jack Schmitzer to put Catholic Memorial up 17-10 with 9:39 remaining.
Brookfield Central's offense was overwhelmed by Catholic Memorial's defensive backs, unable to generate any downfield passing for much of the game. Because of that, the Lancers stuck to the ground game in their first two fourth-quarter drives, passing four times for one completion against six run plays. However, neither drive yielded results, and with 4:21 left in the fourth quarter, Catholic Memorial took over at midfield after a turnover on downs to try and run out the clock, as Brookfield Central had only one timeout remaining.
On the very first play, the Crusaders fumbled it right back to Brookfield Central, giving new life to the Lancers to put together a potential game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter. However, on the very first play, Crusaders standout Langston Latham crashed through, sacking Bloom for an 11-yard loss. Bloom would be sacked on second down as well, losing two more yards after Keith Williams picked up his third sack of the contest. The Lancers couldn't recover from the lost yardage, giving the ball back to Catholic Memorial, who picked up a first down and clinched a hard-fought 17-10 victory in which the Crusaders managed 226 yards of total offense against Brookfield Central's 131, 94 of it by Devine.
The win moved Catholic Memorial coach Bill Young past Pacelli's Bob Raczek into third place on the all-time coaching wins list in state history, giving Young 361 victories against 117 defeats.
On a night that felt like fall football, two of the state's top programs put on a defensive clinic and offered a bit of a throwback to boot on a calm, cool October evening in Wisconsin.
Week 3 IRONJOC Game of the Week: Brookfield East at Brookfield Central (October 9, 7pm)
Photos: Jimmie Kaska