At the end of last season, there were too many bad memories for the Oak Creek football team's defense to recall, as opponents ran up and down the field on the Knights in the final three contests.
That had to change going into 2012 if the Knights were to make a run at the state playoffs.
And maybe it will on the strength of one play in the fourth quarter of Oak Creek's 21-6 season-opening triumph over nonconference opponent and host Menomonee Falls on Friday.
The Knights had dominated the Indians for much of three quarters, but after taking a 14-0 lead, they squandered a couple of opportunities to make it a three-score game.
And Falls started to put the squeeze on the Knights, as the Indians took advantage of a short punt to go 48 yards in just seven plays. Quarterback Adam Vechart's 31-yard scramble led to the Indians' only score as Justin Johnson plowed his way over from a yard out to make it 14-6 with still 9:16 left to play.
Further, the Falls defense, which had been pushed around by Oak Creek to the tune of 173 first half yards, rose up and forced its second three and out from the Knights in as many possessions.
Falls had the ball at its own 43 with 8:17 left to play and a chance to tie the game.
"But not so fast" said the Knights all-state level outside linebacker/defensive end Alex Hahn, who raced up behind Vechart on the subsequent second down play and punched the ball out of his hands and right into those of teammate Dylan Parks, who returned it back to the Falls 18.
Senior running back Virgil Hammond (139 yards on the night) took it from there, carrying on six straight downs before plunging over from three yards out with 5:29 left to play.
The Knights were up 21-6 at that point and were home free.
"I just saw my chance and took it," said Hahn of his play. "It wasn't good (the defense) last year, but we have most of our starters back. We were almost all juniors last year and we've gotten better."
Knight coach Mike Bartholomew was relieved and pleased.
"We've improved so much on defense," said Bartholomew. "That was a big, important goal for us. We're trying to see the game as three parts -- special teams, offense and defense -- and they all have to work together. If one part isn't having a good night, another needs to pick up the slack."
For Indians coach John Baker, who was disappointed that his team couldn't come up with the win before a big Parents Night crowd, it was all a learning experience.
"Oak Creek is a good football team," he said, "and they really got after us early on. We also squandered a couple of chances. We must have had six or seven offsides or illegal motion penalties. We can't shoot ourselves in the foot like that and expect to succeed."
Oak Creek wound up with 55 yards of penalties and Falls 100.
It didn't start out that way, as the Knights impressively drove down the field on their first two possessions to take a 14-0 lead. They would run off 21 plays to the Indians' three in the first quarter.
The opening march took just six plays to go 52 yards, as first-year quarterback Jordan Strong (six of 10 for 63 yards) hit tight end Jordan Veloz on an 11-yard TD pass to give Oak Creek a 7-0 lead just 2:39 into the season.
The Oak Creek defense then stymied the Indians on a third and inches play and forced them to punt.
After that, the Knights grinded out an impressive 17-play drive that took close to eight minutes and, because of two penalties, accumulated more than 100 yards. Junior running back Derrick Stephan dashed over from two-yards out at the 11:24 mark of the second quarter.
Hammond had seven carries for 47 yards on the drive but the biggest play came courtesy of Hahn, as he deftly converted a third and 17 situation with a 19-yard gain on a well-designed reverse.
Oak Creek had a chance to pad the lead just before half but Indians defender Rajaee Vasser blew up a pitch-out play and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive back Brandon Reeves.
Falls was able to get to the Oak Creek 19, but an Oak Creek blitz collapsed the pocket and Vechart was hit as he threw. Veloz was there for the interception that effectively ended the half.
The Knights had one more chance in the third quarter to add to the advantage, but after getting to the Falls 1-yard line, three subsequent motion penalities eventually resulted in a blocked field goal.
That would be the prelude to the fourth quarter fireworks.
"We wound up going a little brain-dead at times in the second half," said Bartholomew. "We just couldn't get it to a three-possession game, but then our defense forced a turnover and we were able to capitalize."
Baker thought that his team improved as the game went along, especially his new quarterback Vechart (6 of 13 passing for 46 yards)
"I thought he handled things well," said Baker. "We just need to step up as a team and eliminate our mistakes."
A point that Bartholomew and the Knights want to emphasize.
"The biggest improvement is between weeks one and two," said Bartholomew, "and we have a lot of opportunities to improve, because this team has a lot of places it can go if it wants to."
'"We can only get better," added Hahn.
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