There were many happy returns on Friday night in Denmark.
There was Drake Locklear’s 87-yard kickoff return to open the second half, which helped return the Denmark Vikings to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons when it sparked a rally for a 31-21 victory over Xavier.
The win also returned a long-overdue favor to the Hawks, who had eliminated the Vikings in the second round in 2007. Most importantly, the victory, which gave Denmark its first seven-win season since 2008, returned a program that had languished for much of the past decade to, if not prominence, solid respectability.
Gabe Wertel was once again a punisher at running back, piling up 149 yards on 29 carries, as Denmark put up 242 rushing yards.
“When I looked into their eyes at halftime, I knew, they weren’t done,” said second-year Denmark coach Tom Neuman, who’s fourth-seeded Vikings trailed by 11 points at intermission. “I told them we’re going to come out and score and get within four, we’re going to hold them and we’re going to score again and we’re not going to look back. And that’s what they did.”
Locklear’s dash through a narrow seam, and aided by key blocks from Ethan Schwartz and Gabe Wertel, flip-flopped the momentum after Xavier had scored twice over the final five minutes of the first half to take a 21-10 lead into the locker room.
“I saw a hole and my guys just kept blocking for me all the way down the field,” said Locklear, who became the de facto return man for Denmark with senior speedster Seth Alexander slowed with an ankle injury. “That’s my first varsity touchdown and everyone kept telling me it was a momentum changer.”
Indeed it was. Sixteen seconds into the second half and Denmark was right back in it. And the momentum never shifted back. The Denmark defense got an immediate three-and-out, then took the lead for good with a 6-play, 86-yard drive, set up by Schwartz’s 55-yard scamper around the right end and finished off by Reece Piontek’s one-yard sneak midway through the third period.
After Xavier’s 14-play bid to tie or reclaim the lead ended in a missed 43-yard field goal attempt early in the final period, the Vikings embarked on their fourth lengthy drive of the game, 80 yards in nine plays. Gabe Wertel’s 4-yard run made it 31-21 with 5:40.
The high-powered Hawks’ offense, shut down almost the entire second half, had one last chance when quarterback Ray Zuleger dropped in a perfect 62-yard pass down to the Denmark 5 with two minutes remaining. But Denmark stuffed the Hawks, who misfired on a 21-yard field goal try and the Vikings ran out the clock on Xavier’s season and improved to 7-3, winning their fourth straight.
They travel to Kiel to take on the top-seeded Raiders on Friday night at 7.
“It put a lot of hope in us,” said linebacker/offensive lineman Mason Karl of Locklear’s epic play. “We needed something like that to come back in a game like this. Our coach always says, next play, next player. You have to keep that mentality, whatever happens. It’s not always what (Neuman) says but how he feels about this team that makes the difference.”
There was plenty for Denmark to hang its head about after an up-and-down first half that featured mistakes and missed opportunities. Xavier’s opening drive met little resistance and the Hawks led 7-0 before three minutes had elapsed.
And while Denmark had an answer with a Riley De Cock 28-yard field goal, a false start at the Xavier four might have cost them more. Casey Kropp’s interception at the Denmark nine and the Vikings’ ensuing 91-yard drive put Denmark ahead, 10-7, on Kenny Satori’s one-yard run. Satori caught a 37-yard pass and Alexander hauled in a 30-yarder from Piontek along the way.
But one minute later, 225-pound running back Mac Strand broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and rumbled 39 yards to put Xavier back on top, 14-10, and after a backward lateral went awry and was recovered by the Hawks, Xavier scored again to lead 21-10 at the half.
It might have been worse after a failed fake punt set up Xavier at the Denmark 39 in the final minute before intermission, but the Hawks missed a 39-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
Xavier amassed nearly 200 yards of offense in the first half, but the Denmark defense wore the Hawks down in the second half. Up until that long completion in the final minutes, Xavier had barely 100 yards of total offense in the second half. Each team finished with 351 total yards.
“Our game plan was to stop the sprint out and the run-pass option,” said linebacker Karl, referring to the dual threat of the shifty Xavier quarterback. “Their quarterback was quick, but we were ready for it.”
Said Neuman: “I have so much respect for (Xavier’s) offensive staff and Coach (Dave) Hinkens. He runs a lot of stuff that we don’t get to see a lot of, so it was a real test four these guys and they stepped up. I’m so proud of them.”
Denmark’s three touchdown drives on Friday covered an average of 86 yards on eight plays as the Vikings used their typical combination of big plays with the grind-it-out running of Wertel to win their fourth straight game.
And despite not having the NEC’s top receiver in Seth Alexander at full strength, Denmark showed off the ample weapons it has developed throughout the course of the season, with Schwartz picking up 57 yards on three carries and Kenny Satori adding 34 on four, along with two big receptions for 65 yards.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had,” said Satori. “This has been sitting with me since last year when we lost to Chilton. In the locker room at halftime, Coach said we were right in it. We just needed to be a little more disciplined on defense.
“I can’t wait until next week.”
Karl, who along with linemen Ryan Wochenske, Luke Abrahamson, Griffin Skaletski, Owen DeGrand and Hunter Drewieski, provided the push and the necessary holes for Wertel and company to run through, as well as provide outstanding protection for Piontek, said the guys up front executed the game plan well.
“They put a small guy in the middle and so we ran in between the two bigger outside guys,” he said. “Our man focus was on blocking (DI linebacking prospect Mac Strand). He’s a tough guy, but he wasn’t tough enough for us.”
Denmark won despite Piontek, the league’s top passer, netting only 109 yards through the air. But he was efficient, with three passes gaining 27 or more yards. He finished 5 of 10.
Defensively, Mike Rabas and Satori led the way, each with 7 tackles, including a sack. Hayden Konkol and Ben Klaubauf were also in on seven stops apiece, while Wertel had two tackles for loss and Schwartz and Joey Van Noie each had one TFL.
Kiel is 10-0 after walloping Campbellsport, 42-0, in another first-round game. Kiel is averaging nearly 250 yards a game rushing. But no one was worried about next Friday’s formidable foe.
“It feels amazing,” Wertel said. “The way we started 0 and 2, I never thought we’d have a home playoff game and then to win it with all the fans and people here, it’s just incredible.”
For Neuman, a great motivator whose first season finished 5-5 and reached the playoffs and whose second-year team began with a lot of question marks, the sky is always the limit.
“In the beginning of the year we had some adversity,” he said. “The team started out very young, but we’ve matured and learned from those experiences and these kids just buy into the plan and the process. And when you trust one another, anything is possible.”
Published by ” The Denmark news “