Neither coach wanted the emotion-packed Arrowhead-Homestead football opener in Mequon Thursday night to be about them.
They wanted it to be about the players.
And in the end, new Arrowhead coach Fritz Rauch and his old mentor at Homestead, Dave Keel, got what they wanted in the physical and intense game, as the Warhawks used a bend-not-break defense, took advantage of Homestead special team issues and overcame an injury to quarterback Jeff Holtz to pull out a 25-18 victory over the young Highlanders.
"This is a new chapter for me and it was a heck of a way to start," said Rauch, "but it was also a heck of a way for for the 2016 team to start its journey too. ...I was just proud of the way we overcame some adversity tonight."
Keel felt his very young team showed some moxie against an extremely high-level opponent.
"We knew we had to play exceptionally well to win this, and it turned out to be a heck of a football game," he said, "The kids came out and played very hard."
Emotions were running high for a reason at this event.
Rauch had been the longtime defensive coordinator at Homestead, where he worked with Keel to create a state-championship powerhouse. He took the Grafton head coaching job in 2015 and was hired away by Arrowhead before the start of this season. Homestead beat Grafton last year, so Rauch said the whole matter of a homecoming of sorts for him was just old hat.
"Last year was weird," he said. "This year, it was all business."
This was an entertaining game in this short, but rich nonconference rivalry, which will likely be discontinued because of conference realignment slated to go into effect next fall.
The Warhawks are coming off a great 2015 season where they lost an epic WIAA Division 1 state final to Kimberly, while the Highlanders overcame a rocky start to their 2015 season (including a season-opening loss to Arrowhead) to win the D2 state title.
Arrowhead came out meaning business.
Senior defensive back Mitchel Grothey got the game off to a spectacular start for the Warhawks on the third play of the game, when he snagged Highlanders quarterback Eric Zoeller's first pass of the season in the flat and took it home 35 yards for a 7-0 Arrowhead lead at the 10:38 mark of the first quarter.
"That first pass was probably not a very special way to start," said Keel.
But the Highlanders tried to come right back as Zoeller hit junior running back Brady Bartz over the middle for 57 yards to give Homestead a first and goal at the Arrowhead 5.
But the Warhawks' defense stiffened, and an apparent fourth down TD pass was wiped out due to an offensive interference penalty. On the subsequent 4th and 18 play, Zoeller's fade pass was hurried by an intense Arrowhead rush and fell incomplete.
"I was tremendously proud of that goal-line stand," said Rauch.
But the Homestead offense was just warming up. Early in the second quarter after a short Warhawks' punt, Homestead back Bradley Woldt executed a nice cutback and zipped 37 yards for a TD. A motion penalty wiped out the extra point, and the subsequent kick was off the mark, making it 7-6, Arrowhead with 9:27 left in the half.
It was just the beginning of the Highlanders' special teams problems.
A series later, Zoeller, one of only a handful starters back on offense, looked like he was stymied on the line of scrimmage but then popped off the left side for 69 yards and the go-ahead TD. There was another penalty on the extra point, and the next attempt was partially blocked, but Homestead had a 12-7 lead with 7:42 left in the half.
"To put it mildly, our special teams play was just poor tonight," said Keel.
Arrowhead came back a series later to take the lead for good, executing an 11-play, 65-yard drive as junior quarterback Jeff Holtz hit senior end Jack Becker for a 16-yard TD pass with 2:08 left in the half. It was one of four completions on the drive for Holtz as Arrowhead went up 13-12.
Homestead had a chance to get the lead back before the end of the half, moving more than 50 yards to gain a first down on the Arrowhead 21 with only seconds remaining, but again, the Arrowhead defense rose to the occasion and sacked Zoeller on third down. The subsequent 41-yard field goal attempt by Ben Price came up just short.
Homestead outgained Arrowhead, 275-134, at the half but would come up short on the scoreboard.
"Homestead did a really nice job of throwing some surprises at us (offensively)," said Rauch. "They also did some nice fundamental stuff that we had to adjust, too. Give Drake (Zortman, Homestead offensive coordinator) credit. He really forced us to make some adjustments."
Those adjustments came to the fore right away in the second half.
The Warhawks took the second half kickoff and moved 65 yards in just eight plays and a TD. Holtz finished off the march with a 21-yard TD run at the 9:39 mark of the third. He got knocked down hard at the goal line however, and had to leave the game with an apparent shoulder injury, forcing junior Henry Case to come on in his place.
It remained 20-12 until early in the fourth quarter when, on a fourth-down play from near midfield, the Highlanders took a delay penalty in punt formation and then turned in a magnificent piece of trickery, as Zoeller took the snap and hit Mike Bruner on a 52-yard TD pass.
"The kids executed a great play" said Keel. "The center (Bruner) was eligible, and that ball floated up there perfectly."
But again, special teams came to stymie the Highlanders as the 2-point try for the tie failed.
Arrowhead big plays
Arrowhead steadied itself once more, taking nine plays and coming away with a 32-yard field goal by Norz. The snap was high, and Norz double-clutched but still hit the kick with his second stride. The ball just had enough to clear the crossbar for a 23-18 lead with 7:18 left.
The clinching score came just moments later, as the Warhawks forced the Highlanders to punt, but the snap was awkward, and the kick was blocked out of the end zone for a safety and a 25-18 Arrowhead advantage with 4:31 left.
Homestead finally got the ball back with 2:08 left and no time outs. At midfield, the Highlanders tried another bit of trickery, but the attempted double-pass was picked off by Warhawks' senior defensive lineman Jake Powell. Arrowhead was then able to run out the clock.
The Warhawks would be led by senior running back Spencer Papandrea, who had 93 yards on 21 carries, while Holtz had 54 yards on nine carries. Holtz completed 9 of 11 passes for 69 yards, with Becker catching six passes for 51 yards.
Woldt gained 124 yards on 20 carries for Homestead, and Zoeller was 10 of 20 passing for 201 yards.
Keel was disappointed, but not too unhappy, with the performance.
"We'll look at the film and see if we can find ways to get better," he said.
Meanwhile, Rauch was both relieved and happy.
"I give our defensive staff credit for making the adjustments we needed," he said. "It took awhile for us to get our sea legs under us. I was also pleased with how the offense responded all night."