Even if everything had gone perfectly for the Nicolet football team this fall, it was going to be an uphill climb for the youthful Knights in the rugged North Shore Conference.
But as everyone knows, it did not go perfectly well, millions of light years away from that, in fact.
Tyler Webb's memory colored every whack of the tackling dummy in practice, every lap around the practice field and every opponent's touchdown this fall, of which there were far too many for the 0-9 Nicolet team.
Webb, who would have been a senior defensive back/wide receiver this fall, took his own life before the team's scrimmage in August, just a few weeks before the season started. It was a tragedy that will never be properly explained and is incomprehensible for both young and old alike.
His teammates and coaches tried to carry on as best as they could in a campaign that was marked by both too many injuries to key players and by too many tough defeats.
"It did have an impact on a lot of things that went on," said coach Dave Quam. "The kids, they had some good days and they had some bad days. It's a very tough thing being 16 years old and having one of your friends pass away.
"Each kid tried to handle it in their own way. Some did better than others while some struggled. It was a challenge. Bottom-line, we tried to talk to the kids, treat the practice field as a place of refuge. A place to have fun."
Quam just wishes the team itself could have had more fun. After a heartbreaking 17-14 loss to non-conference opponent Wauwatosa East in the second week of the season, it just became difficult for the Knights as they went through five weeks of lopsided losses. A particularly brutal stretch came with three successive shutout defeats to North Shore and state powers Homestead, Whitefish Bay and Germantown.
Quarterback and co-captain Alex Baez was hurt early on and that further limited Nicolet's chances.
Nicolet had one more opportunity to make things right in the second-to-last game of the year against Milwaukee Lutheran. The Knights rallied to tie the score at 14-all late in the first half on touchdown runs by Jemalle Williams (a close friend of Webb's) and Justin Wallace.
But Lutheran then scored three unanswered TDs to put the game away. The season closer against powerful Cedarburg a week later was scarcely worth mentioning, though Quam said the team played hard.
"We had to hunt for positives to take out of this, though over the course of the season, some kids did play well," Quam said.
A key link to holding everything together was the play of senior co-captain, defensive back and running back Brett Keiper.
"He was very willing to do whatever was needed," Quam said.
Keiper earned second-team all North Shore for his efforts at defensive back.
Quam also said junior lineman Mohamed Dawod played well this fall as did Wallace and junior lineman Matt Appleby.
The senior co-captains for the team included Keiper, linebacker/center Alex Knaus, tight end/linebacker Wallace and Baez. Other seniors included DeVante Coleman, Bryce Harlow, Javon Smith, Macabee Pereira, William Burrows, Menelik and Teferi Whilby, Isaiah Agara and Daniel Ish-Shalom.
Quam said the junior varsity struggled but that there is hope for the future as the freshmen team went 5-1-2, beating Cedarburg and tying Homestead.
He was pleased a good chunk of the team continued to play hard even when the odds were stacked against them. Webb's memory will continue to be honored and Quam and the rest of his hard-working staff and team will try to build toward a better 2014.
"The circumstances were trying," he said. "We'll see what we've learned from it all."
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