Messmer/Shorewood football coach Drake Zortman spent a long time pulling something important out of his bag Friday night.
It was late in his post-game speech following the Greyhounds not-unexpected 49-6 loss to City Conference champion Milwaukee Riverside in a WIAA Division 1, Level 1 playoff game at Pulaski Stadium.
The game followed an exhausting week for Zortman and the Greyhounds, after a difficult and often mystifying legal process that helped net the team its first WIAA state playoff berth in 30 years.
The media had been all over the schools and the team and the coach all week, and he needed to cut through the fluff and drama and remind his players of the most important thing about the whole process.
And the reminder he pulled out of his bag was the shiny WIAA regional qualifier plaque the team received for earning its slot in this game.
"We are change."
Those were the three words Zortman used over and over again in the speech as he pointed to the plaque and noted that this is the first-ever berth for the decade-old Messmer/Shorewood program (Shorewood itself had qualified in 1981).
He spoke directly to the 15 seniors who had breathed the sport of football since the first week of August under the then-new coach and his staff and had come to believe in themselves.
'You are the first group to get your bronze tile on this plaque," he said. "...Everyone one of your seniors is about the change that is happening here.
"One year, two years, five years from now, when we are on the other end of a score like this -- Messmer/Shorewood 48, whoever nothing -- you seniors will have a big place in my heart for getting it started."
Make no mistake, he was not grateful for the way the Greyhounds (4-5) started the game. The swift and talented Tigers (9-1) scored on five of their first six possessions, sometimes in shockingly quick fashion, taking a 35-0 lead at the half in the process.
After Riverside (9-1) scored its last TD of the game late in the third quarter on a Bakari Triggs 50-yard punt return, Messmer/Shorewood, with the help of a personal foul penalty, finally broke through and got over the Tigers 50-yard line.
They reached the Riverside 17-yard line before turning the ball over on downs.
But with a running clock and a sense of urgency pressing them forward, the Greyhounds got the ball back in just six plays, as Messmer/Shorewood defenders, headed up by senior Justino Rodriguez and junior Darren Thomas-Virginia, stoned the Tigers' Larry Watkins on a 4th and 1 play, giving the ball back to the Greyhounds on their own 42.
And with a fan base that was still deeply into it ("Let's go Messmer" being chanted loudly and forcefully all through the second half), the Greyhounds rewarded their coach and their fans even further.
Senior end Nate Wickstrom, who maddeningly saw two good passes from sophomore quarterback Taylor Dennis glance off his fingertips earlier in the game, collected a 27-yard Dennis strike to the Tigers 15.
And if not for the quick thinking of assistant coach Andy Moriarity, who reminded Zortman to call a timeout because of the running clock, Messmer/Shorewood may not have gotten the chance to do what came next.
Dennis delivered a beautiful fade pass to 6-3 fellow sophomore Jonathan Carson, who collected the throw in the front corner of the end zone with just 25 seconds left.
It wasn't going to win the game by any means, but to the Greyhound bench and their fans, it certainly felt like the team had won a state title.
"Thank goodness for having smart assistants," said Zortman with a laugh. "Just before the play I looked Jonathan (Carson) in the eye, and told him to get a good outside release and be prepared to go up, because he was starting his basketball season early and grabbing the biggest rebound of his life."
Which is exactly what he did.
There was still a lot of sadness at the Greyhounds' ending their breakthrough season in such a disappointing way. Senior running back and defensive back Antoine Davis, whom Zortman frequently called the "heart and soul of this team" spent a lot of time just hugging and talking and consoling his teammates.
He was one of the primary change agents Zortman was talking out.
"In the end, it wasn't about winning or losing," said Dennis, "but just about getting here as a team and being able to hold our heads up."
"What a great way to end," said Zortman. "Against their starters, we got a stop and then we got a score. We battled against those starters for 48 minutes. ...It was just about competing tonight.
"And everything that went into it was and will remain worth it. Because we were doing things for kids. There's only room for one first-ever spot on that (WIAA plaque), and it's theirs. They've earned it."
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