For more than three quarters, Whitefish Bay was in control.
But after Brookfield East’s Michael Amato ran his second kickoff return for a touchdown with 10 minutes 54 seconds left, the Blue Dukes saw a 23-point halftime lead dwindle to 12. And the host Spartans felt the momentum switching their way.
But a 70-play drive culminating with a 22-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Grant Menard to tight end Jackson Weber on fourth down midway in the final period put an end to any comeback talk.
The Blue Dukes defeated East, 40-21, to advance to the third round of the WIAA Division 2 playoffs. Whitefish Bay, with a 7-4 record, will face No. 3 Waterford at 7 p.m. Friday at home.
Statistically, the game was no contest. The Blue Dukes gained 324 yards rushing and 148 yards passing. At halftime, Whitefish Bay had run 45 plays to only 15 for East. But the Spartans still felt they had a shot to rally in the fourth quarter.
However, Bay kept its poise and came away with the victory.
After Amato’s return, the Blue Dukes got the ball back on their 30. Wingback Rashadeem Gray, who had 182 yards in 24 carries, gained 43 yards around right end. The Spartans stiffened on defense and Bay was faced with a fourth and four from the East 22.
Bay coach Jim Tietjen had originally decided to kick the field goal, but after conferring with offensive coordinator Greg Lehman, Tietjen decided to go for it. The play-action worked perfectly and Weber was all by himself.
“We went to the sideline and Coach Lehman said, ‘We can go for it, can’t we?’ ” Menard said. “And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ It just comes from trusting our coach. I think that was the biggest play of the year for us. There was a lot of trust out there.”
The Blue Dukes, who needed a victory over Nicolet in the final game of the season to reach the playoffs, is playing their best football of the season. They are the first Whitefish Bay team to reach the third round of the playoffs.
“We started the season playing a lot of kids that hadn’t played a lot of football,” Tietjen said. “But they’ve played a full season. We’ve had a war with Cedarburg, we’ve had a war with Slinger and we’ve played with Homestead. We’ve played some pretty good football teams.”
The Blue Dukes, who opened the playoffs with a 58-24 victory over Milwaukee Bradley Tech on Oct. 21, continued their high-powered attack against East.
Whitefish Bay’s opening drive, which went 79 yards in eight plays, ended with a 7-yard run by Gray. Weber had a 34-yard reception and wide receiver Darrein Walker had a 12-yard catch on the drive.
Amato took a squib kick, beat the first wave of defenders and ran down the Whitefish Bay sideline to tie the game. But that was all the offense the Spartans could muster in the first half.
Colin Downing kicked a 25-yard field goal to give the Blue Dukes the lead.
Bay linebacker Jeremiah Holt intercepted a pass and Bay scored several plays later when Menard found Weber, who made a leaping catch for the touchdown. Dee Brown scored on a 1-yard run and Gray scored on a 3-yard run to give the Blue Dukes a 30-7 halftime lead.
The Spartans opened the second half with their most impressive drive of the game, going 76 yards in 16 plays, with an 8-yard pass play from Bryce Pompos to Brian Smith.
Brookfield East, which had advanced to the second round of the playoffs with a 14-7 victory over Greendale, finished the season with a 7-4 record.