Staring off into the cornfields behind Living Word Lutheran on a breathtakingly beautiful autumn day in Jackson, it would be hard to remember the recent bad old days of the Shorewood football program for coach Drake Zortman and his Shorewood/Messmer team.
The endless losing streaks, the revolving door of coaches and the uncertainty of whether the program would survive from year-to-year.
But there they were this day, Zortman and his senior leaders Taylor Dennis, Jonathan Carson and Tywan Ramsey.
The 63-22 rout of host Living Word Lutheran completed, the team could now quietly celebrate the astonishly fast three-year journey from gridiron joke to undefeated champions of the Midwest Classic Conference.
"Taylor (Dennis, his quarterback) and I shared a moment in the second half," said Zortman. "I asked him 'Did you ever think back then we'd be conference champs?' and he said right back to me 'I didn't know if we'd ever win a game.'"
The bad old days are extinguished and gone. Good days are here, maybe not forever, nothing ever is, but for now they are to be savored and enjoyed.
Zortman told the players afterwards that "With great success, comes great responsibility" and that they could enjoy the rest of this beautiful day and all day in school on Friday with their "Chests puffed out. That they get to walk around as conference champions."
But as ever, the players adopted their coach's dignity and class mantra in accepting the honors.
"Yes, we'll puff our our chests a little," said the defense end Ramsey, "but only with confidence, not with cockiness."
"It's all come at such a fast pace," added the all-world defensive end/tight end Carson. "It's been so intense. It means a lot to me (this conference title). How far we've come so fast is just crazy."
The Greyhounds finished the season 7-0 in Midwest Classic play and 7-2 overall. They will find out where, who and when they play in the WIAA state playoffs on Saturday.
It is the third straight trip to the playoffs for the team under Zortman, who was ambushed completely by the the celebratory water cooler bath afterwards.
He looked long into the setting sun and thought hard about this journey of success.
"This is very special for this group of kids, these seniors," he said. "I've asked a lot of them and they've come through 10-fold."
Because there was so much to overcome.
"Kids are kids," he said. "Just because the history of the school (and its football program) are not on their side doesn't mean they couldn't buy into things here and get better."
"Kids are kids and if you get them to buy into things, they can accomplish much."
They have and they did as they won the first league football title since 1981 for Shorewood and the first since 1947 for Messmer.
Messwood (as the team is commonly known) wasted no time showing that it meant business Thursday at Living Word scoring on six of its seven first half possessions en route to a 41-0 lead.
Touchdowns came from DeAngelo Stewart (46-yard run), Jekim Jones (20-yard run), a 57-yard Dennis to Carson pass, a 55-yard pass to Louis Williams on which Carson had a monster block, a 47-yard run by Williams and a two-yard run by Riley Sellinger.
Three of the scores came on the first plays of the possession and two of them were set up by interceptions by Matt Smith and Deniko Montgomery.
In the second half, reserves took over as Zortman wanted to share the championship feeling. Andre Brown scored on a 47-yard run and Deonte Newsome and Trinity Conley both returned kickoffs for TDs.
As the game was winding down, Zortman, who is ever reminding his team to strive to do its best and to do it a classy manner, seemed to be looking around and taking it all in.
So were his senior stars, who remember what it was like to come into a program with so little to point to with pride.
"Coming in freshman year I never thought anything like this could happen," reiterated Dennis. "Now to be conference champions. ..."
"But it was our goal from last year going into this season. It's very gratifying, such a great thing."
"I really can't describe it," said Ramsey. "It's such a good, good thing."
Zortman, who admitted that it was going to a happy, but cold trip back to the Shorewood area with his wet clothes, accepted many hugs and hearty handshakes as he made sure to round up everyone for the bus ride home.
He knows there is the strong liklihood that the Greyhounds will be back in the much tougher Woodland Conference next season (Shorewood's home league for other sports), and that will result in a change of fortune, at least in the short-term.
But he is certain that the groundwork for future success has been solidly put in place.
"We'll work really hard for next week (and the playoffs)," he said. "The future is so bright and the program is headed in a good direction.
"...I'm just so happy for these guys."
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