Fortunately for the Menomonee Falls football team, the special teams unit lived up to its name.
In a well-played, physical slugfest in the opening round of the WIAA Division 1 playoffs on Friday night, the third-seeded Indians outlasted visiting sixth-seeded Appleton East, 20-17, and they needed every ounce of effort from their kicker and punter to do it.
After sophomore kicker Alec Knuese connected on a 37-yard try on the Indians’ first possession, the Patriots answered with a 11-play, 57-yard touchdown drive capped by senior quarterback Garrett Peterson’s 3-yard touchdown keeper.
The Indians offense was stymied by Appleton East’s defensive speed for much of the first half and could only get close enough for another 31-yard field goal from Knuese to enter the break trailing, 7-6.
The Patriots started the second half with another steady drive, but stalled inside the red zone and settled for a 32-yard field goal of their own from sophomore Gabe Heindel.
On the ensuing possession, the Indians finally succeeded in using the Patriots’ speed and aggressiveness against them. Junior running back Christian Almonte broke loose for a 56-yard gain down the left side that was stopped at the 14-yard line by a shoestring tackle.
“I got the ball, the guard pulled and made a perfect block on the linebacker,” said Almonte, who finished with 72 yards on 11 carries. “I got one-on-one with the safety, made a move and had a great run and then got tripped up at the end there.”
Indians head coach John Baker said he was trying to bait an aggressive defense into over-pursuing.
“We were trying to get a counter play going all night, and we were running strong side and we finally got one loose,” Baker said. “They’re so fast defensively that we were trying to run that counter, and we finally busted loose on that one.”
One play later, junior quarterback Adam Vechart took a keeper 12 yards up the middle for a touchdown to give the Indians a 13-10 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Patriots defense appeared to force a three and-out when a costly personal foul extended an Indians drive that would eventually result in a 10-yard touchdown run from Almonte.
“It was an inside play that I bounced outside,” he said. “I just had to make one move on the ‘backer and scored.”
Down 20-10 with 6:57 left, the Patriots appeared just about finished. But after senior Tony Bauer returned the kickoff to midfield, the Patriots rallied with a 10-play touchdown drive finished by a 2-yard rush from Bauer.
The Patriots didn’t recover an onside kick attempt with 3:09 left, but stuffed three consecutive rushing plays and used all their timeouts to stop the clock. The Indians were forced to punt with 2:57 to play, and that’s when the often-ignored but immeasurably valuable special teams unit would come up huge yet again.
Junior punter Anthony Russo drilled a beauty from midfield, a coffin-corner kick that landed out of bounds at the 5-yard line.
“Both of our kickers did an outstanding job,” Baker said. “Russo pinned them deep. He was consistent all night. Alec did a great job kicking field goals and extra points. I was proud of those guys.”
The Indians defense held strong, and an incomplete pass on fourth and 19 sent one sideline into jubilation and the other into anguish.
Baker said his team entered the game expecting a tight battle.
“If you look at their last two games, they were ahead against Appleton North, and that’s the No. 1 seed on the other side of the bracket,” he said. “I watched how physical they were and how fast they were, and we were really impressed. We really expected a dogfight. Offensively and defensively we put together a full game. If one unit dropped down, the other one picked it up, and that’s what we talked about going into this game.”
Appleton East finishes the season at 5-4, while The Indians (7-2) move on to Level 2 to face No. 2-seeded Kimberly. Kimberly thrashed the Milwaukee Morse Marshall co-op, 77-0 on Friday night.
“It’s the playoffs,” Almonte said. “They’re all tough games, but we’ve got a great team. We’re willing to go all the way. Everyone wants it. We’ve got a bunch of great senior leaders. It’s all about team.”