"Win the week."
There's nothing elaborate about the message to the Mukwonago football team from coach Mike Gnewuch in the days leading up to their Homecoming showdown with Classic 8 foe Waukesha West. These days, high school football is a week-to-week effort, a collaboration of community, school, coach, and student, to make sure that the game can go on.
Gnewuch dismissed revelations about the potential structure of the WIAA Culminating Event, set to begin a little less than a month from Friday's contest. "We don't know what the future has in store for us," he said, noting the Classic 8 lost a contest early in the season due to Covid-19 protocol. "We're taking it one game at a time."
While playoffs and state championships are the goal most years for most teams, 2020 is anything but like most years. Instead, says Coach Gnewuch, the goals are much more introspective this season.
"Progression," said Gnewuch, of his team's goals this year. "Get better. Attitude. Effort."
Against the backdrop of more than two dozen games getting canceled each week, the Milwaukee area to this point has largely been spared. However, it doesn't mean that schools in the vicinity aren't dealing with the effects of the pandemic in other ways. A day prior to their Week 4 games, Oak Creek and Franklin announced they were going virtual. A handful of games were canceled or moved. Across the state, with the deadline to pack up and try again in the spring long now in the past, schools and administrators are doing all they can to keep the football season going despite dealing with the effects of contact tracing, quarantine, and the occasional positive coronavirus test.
Perhaps that's why Friday's setting seemed more authentic than any game to date: a marching band, halftime performance, and Homecoming court were all part of the festivities, a night suggesting that perhaps on the other side of all of this, we will once again be enjoying the full compliment of experiences that high school athletics has to offer. For now, a socially-distanced crowd and a competitive, well-played football game will have to do. Schools and fans are still adjusting to the new protocols, but like the teams themselves, are beginning to find their voice in the face of uncertainty.
On the field, Coach Gnewuch offers a better metaphor. "We're at midseason," he suggested, "So now we need to be at midseason form."
Mukwonago, said Gnewuch, has a lot to play for.
"We've seen great growth," he said. "I love our potential. We have to keep getting better."
It's not as though the one-and-oh mentality exists on only one sideline. Waukesha West coach Steve Rux had a similar message for his squad in the lead-up to gameday.
"We're not even thinking of that," said Rux, in regards to the WIAA Culminating Event. "We're just worried about the week-to-week."
The Wolverines were one of the schools impacted in the Classic 8 by an early-season cancellation, losing their Week 1 game against Kettle Moraine due to Covid-19 protocol.
"I just hope we get nine games in," Rux continued, noting that West scrimmaged Brookfield East, who also lost their Week 1 opponent, to get some work in on September 25.
When asked if there was a goal perhaps not related to an end-of-season event, Rux allowed that he hoped the kids would have something to celebrate in the end.
"We do, so far," Rux said, in regard to having work to celebrate. "We never knew how things were going to play out. We're finding ways to continue to play amidst the circumstances we're in."
Coaching a football team is hard enough. Coaching a football team, while being an instructor, parent, spouse, community member, and now a sudden expert in following risk mitigation protocol for a pandemic adds an impressively complex layer to an already difficult situation.
"We just keep saying, 'control the controllables,'" said Coach Gnewuch, alluding to the added workload that administrators and school officials now take on in response to the pandemic.
"We're in class five days a week," Gnewuch said. "You gotta make sure masks are on... sit in the corner of the classroom if the teacher allows it, to avoid contact tracing decisions.... and make good decisions on weekends."
Gnewuch recalled that earlier in the season, five of his student-athletes missed some time due to contact tracing. He also admitted that time management has become a necessary skill given the circumstances.
"I don't even get a prep period anymore, because I'm meeting with our athletic director about procedures and protocol, I'm going over busing, I'm discussing how to do halftime, how to keep 'em socially distancing," said Gnewuch. "There's a whole lot more on my plate besides football."
Coach Rux echoed the same sentiments, in regards to having to manage more than what happens between the lines.
"[The pandemic] is a challenge for anyone in any field," said Rux. "The biggest challenge for me is not knowing who will be with you during the week," he said, noting that they've dealt with contact tracing and quarantine already in 2020.
"We just gotta make sure we are doing everything we can to stay as safe as possible, distancing as best we can, and doing the simple things, like staying hydrated," he continued. We have to be creative and understand how important it is to make sure that we can keep playing."
Rux applauded his team's resiliency so far this season. "They're excited to be playing," he said. "They continue to get better and play their hearts out any time they get out on the field."
Homecoming wasn't spoiled by the weather: temperatures barely above 40 degrees, with mixed precipitation falling intermittently during most of the game. Mukwonago's spirit was perhaps boosted by having a good number of students and parents in attendance for its big night, which would include a series of halftime performances and the announcement of Homecoming court. At times, the specter of the pandemic seemed to disappear into the sounds of the base drums and horns of the marching band on display for the contest.
Much like the miserable weather in the outset, the game itself got off to a sloppy start. After a game-opening drive ended in a field goal for Mukwonago to go up 3-0 midway through the first quarter, the teams traded interceptions on three straight possessions. Mukwonago cashed in on their second takeaway in just one play, a lob to standout tight end-slash-H back-slash-slot receiver Garrett Gillette from 31 yards out, in which Gillette dove over the north end zone's easternmost pylon to push Mukwonago's lead to 10-0 late in the first quarter.
After trading possessions, Waukesha West got to business in the middle of the second quarter. A nine-play, 71-yard drive was capped off by 14-yard touchdown run by star two-way player C.J. Grisar, on a drive that saw quarterback Tyler Hug go three-for-four passing for 24 yards as well as three carries for 16 yards to help set up the scoring play. The Wolverines brought the game back within three points, 10-7.
Mukwonago took over with 5:19 remaining in the second quarter, and used the steady running of Cole Kaestner to set up a big score just before halftime, a 27-yard strike to Max Braun from junior Greyton Gannon, his second touchdown toss of the game, to make it 16-7 Mukwonago going into the locker room.
Waukesha West's opening second-half drive stalled out, giving the ball back to Mukwonago midway through the third quarter. The teams' defenses held on the ensuing possessions, with Waukesha West sending the ball back to Mukwonago with just 33 seconds left in the third quarter. An errant punt allowed Mukwonago excellent field position to begin their next drive.
Aided by a 15-yard penalty, Mukwonago wasted no time getting into the end zone, running just 1:49 off of the clock in covering 54 yards. A five-yard touchdown run for Braun pushed Mukwonago up 23-7 early in the fourth quarter.
Waukesha West would have to cover 80 yards to get one of the two scores it needed to get back into the game on its next possession, and that it did, using 6:14 of the fourth quarter to go the distance, capped off by a short touchdown pass from Hug to Jason McIntyre to get within 10 points. The two-point conversion failed, however, as Hug was sacked attempting to bootleg to his left to find a target in the end zone, leaving the game a two-possession affair with just 4:28 remaining.
Mukwonago chewed up nearly three minutes of clock before sending it back to the Wolverines, who couldn't find the end zone one final time before time expired. Mukwonago would win on Homecoming to improve to 3-1 on the season ahead of their big match-up with Muskego, while Waukesha West fell to 1-2 and will face Arrowhead in their next contest.
On Friday, there will be no high school coverage offered; however, the IRONJOC Game of the Week returns on October 30 with a match-up to be determined on 97.3 The Game and iHeartRadio!