In an eventful 2016 season, the Port Washington football team broke a long WIAA playoff drought, and Cedarburg came back from the brink to keep alive its string of 12 playoff appearances.
Grafton had some struggles, winning just once, but did show definite improvement under a new coach.
Port posted a 5-5 overall record, including 4-3 in the North Shore Conference to earn its first playoff berth since 2008.
"The big factor was the leadership of our seniors," coach John Bunyan said. "Even before this season started, the kids were doing great things to turn around the program. I also credit the time and preparation our coaching staff put in this year.
"The kids came together, and they were a tight group. I was sad to see the season end, which is always the sign of a good year."
The Pirates came into this season with two solid building blocks in senior offensive lineman Tyler Beach and senior running back Matt Ruppel, and both lived up to their considerable billing.
Beach was named the North Shore Offensive Player of the Year and made the all-conference first team for the third straight season. He is on his way to the University of Wisconsin.
Beach helped open holes for Ruppel, who finished with 1,197 yards rushing and scored 18 touchdowns. Ruppel also shone at linebacker, where he collected 116 total tackles, and he was named first-team all-conference on both offense and defense.
The Pirates were also helped by the heady play of senior quarterback Tanner Orten, who passed for 907 yards and nine touchdowns and was the team's second-leading rusher with 437 yards and five scores.
Another defensive standout was junior linebacker Michael Murphy with 103 total tackles.
Port does lose some key seniors, including Beach, Ruppel, Orten and wide receiver Sam Lerche, but Bunyan is confident the upsurge will continue.
"We had a good junior varsity group (which finished 6-3)," he said. "Also, we had seven sophomores who started for us this year.
"I want the younger kids in the program to get comfortable with this (contending for the playoffs)."
The Bulldogs are certainly comfortable with the playoffs, but midway through this year, the postseason looked out of reach.
Cedarburg started 0-3 and then went to 1-4 with a loss to Port, but the Bulldogs bounced back with three straight victories to wind up 4-3 in the North Shore and earn another playoff ticket, their 20th in 21 seasons.
"That was just the will of the kids and their belief in the coaching staff," coach Brian Leair said. "They did not give up on each other and they stayed the course. A lot of teams, after going 0-3, would have gone in the other direction, but these kids believed in each other. I am as proud of this team as any I have coached."
They had some fine individual performances, including from senior tight end Alex Kluck, who made 30 catches for 387 yards and shared North Shore Offensive End of the Year honors.
Senior defensive end Joel Durham was first-team all-conference after tallying 46 tackles, including eight for loss, and three sacks.
Senior Clayton Van Tassel finished with 590 yards rushing, 285 yards receiving and 29 total tackles at defensive back.
Senior quarterback Jack Meyer passed for 1,324 yards and 11 touchdowns and led the team in rushing scores with eight, and senior running back Patrick Hoffman was reliable with 566 yards on the ground.
Leair said his team showed plenty of grit.
"We had a lot of injuries and fought back," he said. "I was really pleased with that and truly enjoyed coaching this team."
The Bulldogs will have some key graduation losses, but Leair thinks they can contend again next season.
"We have some offensive and defensive linemen back," he said. "We need to find some guys to step into the lead roles next season."
The Black Hawks won just once, a 25-22 decision over Nicolet on a late field goal by Jack Orlowski, but they grew more competitive as the season progressed.
Grafton lost three late-season games by under 10 points, including a 42-40 defeat at Whitefish Bay in which a late interception ended a chance to reach field-goal range.
Coach Shaun Behrend said costly mistakes and lapses during stretches of games contributed to the defeats.
Senior quarterback Hayden Proefrock enjoyed a productive season with 1,517 yards passing and 161 more yards on the ground.
The Grafton running game and defense were both hurt when senior Vince Giorgi went out with an injury at the midway point of the season.
Picking up some of the slack was senior Jack Birch, who did a little bit of everything for the Hawks.
Birch helped with the running game, led the team in receptions with 41 and in yards receiving with 479 and paced the squad in tackles with 73.
Grafton loses such stalwarts as Proefrock, Giorgi and Birch but returns Caden Knauer, who ran for 305 yards in the final games, including back-to-back 100-yard efforts, and Orlowski at receiver.