A red and white face-painted Sussex Hamilton backer boldly and swiftly ran out onto the middle of Schumann Stadium in Menomonee Falls on Friday night right after the national anthem and with an impressive amount of chutzpah planted a Chargers spirit flag at midfield much to the great vocal disdain of the Indians football fans in attendance.
Thus, in this long-standing and often intense rivalry, a blow for symbolism was struck.
But the Indians responded with such concrete qualities as execution, character and tenacity, as they scored two touchdowns in the first quarter against the third-ranked iHamilton squad and then hung on for dear life for one of the great upsets of the season so far with a 24-21 decision.
When Chargers quarterback Mike Gryszkiewicz's long sideline pass in the final seconds missed its mark, there was bedlam at the center of Schumann Stadium. If that Hamilton spirit flag had still been there, it would have been trampled into oblivion.
"I never felt like this before, I was so scared (going into those final plays)," said senior linebacker Brian Schmit. "I thought the game would never end. We always knew we were a good football team, but we had to go out and prove it. We had to go out and prove it to everyone."
That the Indians did, as they contained one of the state's great offenses, holding it to under 300 total yards (295), while all-state level running back Drew Patterson still ran for 158 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns but was never allowed to cut loose for a backbreaking score.
Meanwhile, the Indian offense was stunningly impressive, executing when needed and getting big plays at the most important moment as Falls improved to 3-1 in Greater Metro play and 3-2 overall while Hamilton fell to 3-1 (4-1).
"This was such a true team effort," said Indians coach John Baker. "There were so many guys out there making plays. We talked about what this game might mean last night, and the kids really bought into it. It was a great football game, and the kids just played so hard. They did absolutely everything that we asked of them.
"But I tell you, that ending, it just felt like your heart was going to jump out of your chest andthe clock was never going to get to zero."
Yes it did.
After sophomore Alec Knuese hit 23-yard field goal and after Hamilton fumbled a kickoff return, Falls had a 24-7 advantage with 1:25 left in the third quarter.
But the Chargers, who had scarcely been challenged in rolling to four straight impressive wins heading into this tilt, came right back, mounting an eight-play, 63-yard drive as Patterson took a pitchout and plowed in from five yards out to make it 24-14 with 10:48 to go.
After the Hamilton defense forced the first of three straight Falls three and outs, the Chargers got it back, only to have Indians defensive back Mike Van Alstyne pick off a Gryskiewicz pass at the Chargers 30.
But the Hamilton defense prevented Falls from scoring any precious insurance points, and then the Chargers marched 75 yards in 11 plays. Gryszkiewicz scooted in from a yard out with 2:24 left to bring the Chargers as close as they would be all night at 24-21.
The Chargers then tried an onside kick. There was some confusion as to possession, though it clearly seemed that a Falls' player had secured it at the bottom of the pile. After an officials conference, Falls did get the ball.
But the Indians could do nothing with it, Hamilton used all its timeouts and Falls had to punt once again.
Hamilton had the ball at its own 17. After two penalties set them back, a 22-yard pass to Patterson got Hamilton to its own 48, but that was as far as the Chargers woukld get.
The final seconds were harrowing.
Gryszkiewicz was sacked and fumbled, though Hamilton recovered, and a surprise run by Patterson fooled no one. When Gryszkiewicz's desperation heave failed to find its target, Chargers coach John Damato knew he had to go back to the drawing board.
"Falls just came off the ball very well," he said. "Their coaching staff did an excellent job and they kept us on our heels all night. They capitalized on turnovers and that's what good teams do.
"We had a good game plan, but unfortunately it didn't work out."
That's because the Indians had a better one.
They opened the game with an impressive 10-play 63 yard drive. A touchdown run by quarterback Adam Vechart was wiped out by a holding penalty, but no matter as he later connected with back Cole Hernikl on a pretty 15-yard TD pass right over a defender's head.
After forcing a Hamilton punt, junior back Christian Almonte turned on the jets for a 64-yard run around the edge, Hernikl scored on a one-yard run to make it a stunning 14-0 Falls lead with 2:06 left in the first period.
"That start was everything," said Schmit. "It got us going. The offense made a few big plays and then we had to go out and make stops."
Schmit said the primary gameplan was to stop Patterson, who had been running wild over every opponent in his path. The Indians did hold him back until later in the first half, when the Chargers got back into the game with a 77-yard drive, 68 of which was covered by Patterson. He eventually scored on a toss play from 10 yards out to make it 14-7.
Hamilton got the ball first in the second half, but committed three penalties in the sequence and had to punt.
The Chargers pinned the Indians back on their own five-yard line, but senior back Justin Johnson stepped to the fore, taking a quick Vechart out pass, breaking a key tackle and racing 76 yards before getting stopped at the Hamilton five.
A play later, Hernikl (22 carries for 77 yards) took a direct snap for five yards and the score, and Falls was up 21-7 midway through the third period.
"Justin is just one of those kids who just makes plays and never comes off the field," said Baker of Johnson.
Almonte finished with 108 yards rushing on 12 carries while Johnson had three catches for 93 yards and Vechart was a judicious five of seven through the air for 123 yards.
"We weren't taking anything for granted," said Damato. "I know you guys in the media love that kind of stuff, but that wasn't the case. With this rivalry you know you can throw everything out the window and Falls proved that tonight.
"They were well-prepared and they capitalized on the breaks they got. That's the sign of a good team."
"Our kids just executed so well," said Baker. "We threw a few wrinkles in and both our lines really got into it. To shut down that offense like that was just amazing."
"I can't say enough about how proud I am of these coaches and these kids."
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