With state football powers D.C. Everest and Homestead set to do battle in a rich, fattening desert of a season opener Friday at 7 p.m. in Mequon, I thought a little history lesson might be in order to give the enticing tilt a little context.
Early in November 2003, I was on deadline for the Mequon/Thiensville Courant, wanting to dress up my preview story for the intriguing WIAA Division 1 state semifinal football game between the then unbeaten Everest and Homestead squads.
I made a call into the northwoods of Wisconsin and couldn't believe my luck when legendary Evergreens coach Wayne Steffenhagen answered his own phone and was ready and willing to chat football, history and anything else on his mind. "Great," I thought. "This'll make for a terrific preview!"
And with his genial manner and platitudes and high praise for the high-scoring Highlanders (41 points a game going into the contest), Steffenhagen had me hooked like a lazy trout in the summer sun and reeled me in with a faulty, undeserved sense of security about what was going to happen in the contest.
You see, I had already made plans to go to the Germantown-DeForest Division 2 semifinal in Watertown that same day with the crazed, wonderful (and sadly masochistic, given how much work that would have involved) thought that both my teams would win their semifinals and I would have two tickets punched to the championship contests the following week in Camp Randall.
For you see, Germantown and Homestead had played one of those truly, great memorable games just a month earlier. It decided the North Shore Conference championship, was won on virtually the last play on a pass from Highlander quarterback Derek Watson to end David Harkensee and was clearly the best match-up in a long series of great contests between these two area titans.
"Games like these are the reasons you play football," Highlander coach Dave Keel said at the time. With that baggage in tow,I had a greedy, wonderful thought of them both winning state titles, creating opportunities for a series of rich, exciting stories and a hope of an amazing "once in a lifetime" reporting coup that I could recall again and again as I got old and boring.
Only Steffenhagen and the Evergreens popped my bubble like a five-year old's cheap balloon. The bill of goods that he sold me about how difficult the game with Homestead would be in that interview was about five times bigger than the Golden Gate Bridge and worth about a billionth of the price of that particular landmark.
"Without a question, they're the finest team in the state that we'll see," he said in the inhterview. "You look at their ability to score, to play defense. They're a real machine. I'm highly impressed."
As I was dumbfounded, as I heard Germantown fans on cell phones shout out from the stands at the DeForest game, that it was quickly 7-0 Everest, then 14-0, then 21-0. My jaw dropped and I said 'What the heck is going on?!?'" The final would be 35-7 as all the humbled Highlanders would get is a fourth quarter consolation TD.
My fine co-worker Steve Mathe, who covered the game for me, came down from Appleton (where the game was played) with tales of Everest's brilliance and Homestead's unfortunate luck to play its worst game of the season at the wrong time.
"It hurts a lot," Keel said then, as he was looking to get Homestead back to the finals for the first time since 1999. "..Our kids did not perform and we did not do a good job coaching." Five turnovers verified his point. It was the third year in a row that the Highlanders had been stymied in the state semifinal round.
To Steffenhagen's credit, I don't think the state coaches Hall of Fame selection was truly trying to pull a fast one on me or Homestead in the preview interview ("Homestead probably made some uncharacteristic mistakes," he said afterward. "We're not that much better than them.'). He had been in the coaching game long enough at the time to know that there are good days and then there are days when you burn the film.
For Keel and the Highlanders, this was clearly one of the latter.
And the rout was not a fluke for Everest, as Mathe and I were finishing up the post-game happiness of Germantown's division 2 title win over Menomonie the following week, we repaired to the Camp Randall pressbox and got a birds'-eye view of the Evergreens demolition of a truly overmatched Arrowhead team in the Division I final. The formula for Everest was the same as it was for the Homestead game: Hit them hard, hit them fast and never give them a chance to breath.
It would be Everest and Steffenhagen's fifth state championship and their most recent trip to the finals to date. In the intervening time, Stevens Point has ascended to the top of the Wisconsin Valley Conference's ranks with three straight berths in the state semifinals (but with no chance to walk on the Camp Randall carpet just yet).
Everest did win the Valley last season and finished 9-1 overall, but it lost in the second round of the playoffs to Point. Point eventually lost to Arrowhead in the semifinals and then the Highlanders outlasted the Warhawks in the finals for their second state title in three seasons.
Which brings us to Friday's festivities as two defending conference champions with eight state titles between them (the Highlanders have three) prepare to do battle.
Homestead, which has had to make arrangements with Michigan schools in recent years for its nonconference fare (the Highlanders have been untouchable in such games for a decade making them an unpalatable choice for early season competition to most opposing coaches), has struck a home-and-home arrangement with not only Everest, but 2005 state finalist and fellow Valley member Wisconsin Rapids, which the Highlanders will visit Sept. 4.
"It's part of our secret plan to join the conference," laughed Keel.
I ran out of time on deadline before I could try and reach Steffenhagen for a preview of this year's game, but it's probably for the best. I'm older and even slower than I was back then and Steffenhagen, with 30-plus years on the job, is probably no less adept at pulling the wool over gullible reporters' eyes than he was in our original interview.
Still, I'll probably cross the sideline after the game, no matter the outcome, and hopefully share a laugh with him about the lesson he taught me concerning humility and about getting one's hopes up too high that fine November afternoon six years ago.
I just hope he doesn't bring his fishing tackle.
Germantown held up its end, claiming a gritty 7-3 decision over DeForest and eventually beating powerhouse Menomonie for the state title.