It’s hard to keep a good player down for long. Even harder to do so to a great one like Rashadeem Gray.
The Brookfield East Spartans found that out the hard way Friday.
After being completely bottled up in the first half of a Level 3 WIAA Division 2 football playoff game, the Whitefish Bay senior running back exploded and carried the Blue Dukes to a 24-14 victory.
Whitefish Bay (10-1) will play the winner of Saturday’s Waunakee-Watertown game next weekend in a state semifinal, the first time the Blue Dukes have ever reached that level.
“It’s never been done here and we’re making history,” Gray said. “Slowly but surely, we’re making history. We want to be the first class in Madison and I think we’ll get it done.”
For two and a half quarters it looked like the Blue Dukes and their season was done.
With a little more than 8 minutes left in the third quarter, Brookfield East junior quarterback Zach Damico threw a screen pass to Kyle Wirtz that Wirtz turned up field for a 16-yard touchdown. The extra point gave the Spartans (10-1) what appeared to be a comfortable 14-3 lead.
But over the final 10 minutes, 10 seconds, Bay scored 21 unanswered points to shock the Spartans and hand them their first loss of a remarkable season.
The Blue Dukes got going late in the third quarter and capped an eight-play, 56-yard drive with a 5-yard TD pass from Grant Menard to Turner DeMuth on fourth-and-goal. Menard scrambled to his right and completed the pass as University of Wisconsin recruit Alec James zeroed in on him near the sideline.
Menard’s two-point conversion was intercepted, but Bay pulled within 14-9 with 10:10 to go.
After forcing a Spartan four-and-out and building momentum along the way, the Blue Dukes marched again on their next possession, with Gray heading the parade. He carried the ball seven times on a 10-play drive and caught an 18-yard screen pass from Menard on fourth-and-goal from the 5, a touchdown that coupled with Gray’s 2-point conversion run, gave the Blue Dukes a 17-14 lead with 3:53 remaining.
“Our quarterback made a great play,” Whitefish Bay coach Jim Tietjen said. “He bought himself time.”
The Blue Dukes’ defense, which was stellar all night, came up with one more stop, and Gray put the finishing touches on a sterling effort with a 59-yard TD run on third-and-1 with 1:45 left.
“Somebody tapped my foot. I got it back on the ground, turned that track training on and got in the endzone,” Gray said. “I probably should have took a knee.”
After rushing for just 14 yards on five carries in the first half, Gray, who had 1,256 yards and 19 touchdowns through 10 games, had 179 on 21 carries after intermission. He finished with 226 yards from scrimmage, 197 coming in the second half.
“We came out hard in the second half, and I don’t get down on myself when teams are keying on me,” Gray said. “I can’t let that get me down. If they make a mistake, I’ll break one.”
“He willed it. He and our seniors willed this victory,” Tietjen said. “We believe. That’s what it’s about.
“Every week we talk about the next step. We take care of the next step and next week it will be the winner of Waunakee and Watertown. The prize is obviously making it — I shouldn’t say making it — it’s the opportunity to win state."
For the Spartans, an offense that lit up the scoreboard all season long, never got going. Running back Zach Schober tallied only 27 yards on 16 carries after the senior running back rushed for 1,091 yards and 12 touchdowns in the first 10 games of the season. Damico rushed for 93 yards, including a first-half touchdown, but passed for only 83.
It was the Spartans' first time ever in a Level 3 game; their previous four tournament appearances ended in the second round. The loss was the only blemish on a season in which East won its first Greater Metro Conference title since 1984.