The senior leadership of the 11-2 North Shore Conference champions and WIAA D2 state semifinalist Homestead football team came from many sources, including quarterback Eric Zoeller, running back turned linebacker Michael Fehrembach and all-conference offensive linemen such as Jack Rapala and Jack Henrichs.
But the talented junior class, led by Now All-Suburban selections Bradley Woldt (running back and punter), Mike Bruner (linebacker) and Jordan Schroeder (defensive line), not only provided some splash and dash to the entertaining Highlanders this fall, they also provided some backbone when needed.
Take for instance the penultimate game of the season, the epic 27-24 victory over rival Whitefish Bay in the WIAA Level 3 held last month.
The Highlanders went down 21-20 at the half and were going to be without the hyper-talented Zoeller, who led the Highlanders to a D2 state title last season, because of a broken collarbone suffered in the first half. The Highlander defense was also struggling like mad to contain the pass-happy offense of Blue Duke quarterback Cade Garcia.
Woldt steps in
Enter Woldt, who eventually stepped in as a "Wildcat" formation quarterback and led the Highlanders on the winning drive, scoring it on a 3-yard run with only moments to go in the game.
Woldt immersed himself in the senior-dominated Homestead Heat Leadership team during the season so he knew he was ready for the moment.
"I wanted to show them that I was a leader," he said. "Someone needed to step up because Eric (Zoeller) is one of the greatest quarterbacks in Homestead history. He was a gift to this team. It was so hard to come back out of that locker room (at the start of the second half). Everyone's emotions were so raw. It was hard for all of us to trust anyone else because Eric was so good in that position.
"But I knew I was the next man up. I just told Drake (Zortman, the offensive coordinator) that I knew the offense. I could do this."
And he did, just like he did all season, coming up with one big run after another, pin-pointing punts when needed and even executing perfect fakes out of the punt formation like he did in the loss to Arrowhead.
"He's strong, elusive, makes people miss and is not afraid to run over people," said head coach Dave Keel. "Whatever role we needed, he stepped into it."
That was also the case on the defensive side of the ball. The unit tightened itself up dramatically in the second half of that Bay game and allowed the Blue Dukes only a field goal after the half, holding the Blue Dukes' great All-Suburban receiver Alex Anthony to just one catch.
"We just had a change of attitude," Bruner said. "We were not right mentally in that first half. We had to come out like we wanted to win. If we had come out like that from the start, we would have won that game going away."
Bruner sounds like a confident individual and he is, as before this season even started, he secured a NCAA D1 offer from the Big 10's Iowa. He was a state qualifying high jumper in track last spring but at 6-3, 215 will likely start working with the weightmen next spring.
The younger brother of key defensive stalwart on the 2015 state champions Jake, Bruner made himself indispensable and almost unblockable this season. Teams ran away from his side of the field so often, it got frustrating, but he remained focused and continued to make plays.
"Just a sideline-to-sideline player who gets all over the field," Keel said.
Bruner is also someone who understands the "Homestead Way" and respected the teammates who embraced it fully like he did.
"I've known Brad (Woldt) since second gradel; he's like a second brother," Bruner said. "He just goes out there and does what he does best."
Woldt's versatility comes from the fact that he has a high-level former soccer player for a mom, and he credits her for his agility — something he developed after playing as a lineman from fourth through sixth grade.
Bruner also knew immense All-Region selection Schroeder (6-4, 305) made his life tremendously easier.
"Tremendously so," Bruner said. "He stuffed the run so well in the middle and forced the backs to bounce out (and into Bruner's grasp). The kid was so tough to block. He's just huge."
"He's a big tackle who moves like a linebacker," Keel added. "A very powerful player."
That the season ended a week after the Bay game in the state semifinals against Monona Grove, as the loss of Zoeller proved to be just too much, was not viewed as a failure by anyone associated with the program.
The trio of All-Suburban choices will be back to help the Highlanders try and take that next step back to the state finals in 2017. They will work in a newly reconfigured North Shore, which will not have old rival Germantown anymore but will add several teams from the soon-to-be-defunct Little 10.
"I was really pleased with the senior leadership," Keel said. "We bounced back (from the Arrowhead loss). That game showed us what needed to do to be successful. You can ask, 'What If?'' but this season was still a lot of fun."
Bruner thought the Highlanders were underestimated this year. That will not likely happen again.
"This season should be considered a great success," he said. '"A lot of people thought we'd go out in the second or third round of the playoffs, but we showed everyone what Homestead football is all about."