By Kelly Fenton for The Denmark News
DENMARK – If Denmark High School proved one thing on Friday night, it’s that it’s not where you start but where you finish that matters.
Time and again in the second half of their season opener against Luxemburg-Casco, the Vikings began drives deep inside Spartan territory, starting at the 44, the 35 and the 27. Each time, they came up empty.
Meanwhile, Luxemburg began drives at its 18, its four and its 15 before taking over at its own seven with eight minutes left in a tie game following another stalled Denmark opportunity. With the Viking defense having dominated throughout the first 40 minutes, yielding just 100 yards to that point and only 14 in the second half, it seemed certain Denmark would get the ball back with one final chance to cash in.
But on a humid night in Denmark, fatigue finally caught up with the thin Viking roster, and the Spartans went on an improbable, 20-play, 93-yard drive that culminated in a fourth-down, one-yard plunge for the winning touchdown with just 9.4 seconds left in the game, and the Spartans spoiled the coaching debut of Tom Neuman with a 14-7 victory.
“This one’s on me,” said Neuman, head coach for the first time in his career on Friday following a 13-year stint as an assistant at Newman Smith High School in Carrolton, Tx. “We took them completely out of their game and they went to a quarterback-run game, which is not their game, and I didn’t roll enough subs in and we got tired at the end and they took advantage. That won’t happen again.
“But I can’t tell you how proud I am of these guys. These guys understand blocking schemes and understand where offenses want to attack and they’ve really upped their football IQ.”
Indeed, the Viking defense was stalwart against a Spartan team that finished tied for second in the North Eastern Conference last season. The front three of Jackson Koenig, Jack St. Peter and Griffin Skaletski stood up the Luxemburg front line, allowing linebackers Jerick Czarneski, Brandon Wavrunek, Michael Rabas and T.J. Weidman to make plenty of stops at or near the line of scrimmage.
Wavrunek shined on both sides of the ball, racking up, unofficially, 10 tackles and rushing for 62 yards on 15 carries, including a five-yard touchdown that staked the Vikings to a 7-0 lead with 5:49 left in the first half.
“This journey started for Brandon when he went out for track in February,” said Neuman, who is also the school’s track coach. “He told me he wanted to get faster and stronger and he’s been working every day for this game. He did everything he possible could tonight.”
Last season, the Viking defense struggled to get off the field, surrendering too many third-and-long conversions. While it demonstrated a marked improvement in the 2018 opener, one of its few letdowns led to the Spartans’ game-tying touchdown late in the first half after Denmark had just taken the lead and had all the momentum. Luxemburg-Casco converted a third-and-11 on its 9-play, 55-yard touchdown drive with 2:25 left in the half.
Denmark quarterback Jack Satori found Travis Wellner on consecutive plays for 14- and 15-yard completions and the Vikings had a first down at the Spartan 33, still with more than a minute remaining in the half. But in what would turn out to be a harbinger of the second half, the Vikings couldn’t convert, and the teams went into halftime knotted at 7-7.
“It was definitely frustrating with all the good field position we had,” said Satori, who completed 8 of 14 passes for 61 yards and also ran for 53 more on 13 carries. “But I thought the defense played a hell of a game. We had a couple of guys cramping at the end. I guess we just have to push more in the weight room and in sprints.”
All told, Denmark made seven forays deep into Luxemburg-Casco territory, converting just one of those following a 15-play, 80-yard drive that took 8:09 off the clock. Wavrunek carried a tackler the final three yards on his five-yard touchdown run. Satori converted two fourth downs and one third down with keepers.
Next up: Wrightstown
Using a steady diet of Wavrunek, Denmark threatened on its opening series of the second half, with Satori keeping the drive going on a fourth-down completion to Czarneski to the Spartan 24. But a fourth-down incompletion resulted in the first of four stalled drives in Spartan territory in the second half.
An unsportsmanlike penalty stopped the next Denmark threat that reached the Spartan 28, and after taking over at the Luxemburg 35 following a short punt late in the third period, the Vikings stalled again following a quarterback sack.
One play later, Zach Mears pounced on a Spartan fumble, setting the Vikings up with their best chance yet – at the Luxemburg 27 with 10:29 remaining. A pass interference gave them a first down at the 12, but two plays later, Satori fumbled on a keeper at the seven, and the Spartans began their epic, winning drive.
“Before we had that turnover, we were getting the field-goal team ready,” Neuman said of his kicker Hailey Aschenbrenner. “She’s pretty automatic. She’s a heck of a kicker. But I told them how proud I am of them and that it’s not over. It hurts a little bit and I don’t like losing. But this wasn’t a step back. It was a step forward.”
Defending league champ Wrightstown rolls into town this Friday night, so another tough challenge looms for a program that is struggling with the essentials. Not only did just 31 Vikings suit up, but the team is having to make do with a garage for a locker room and a trailer park for showers while the brand-new field house is being constructed.
“These guys keep facing adversity and knocking it down and going forward,” Neuman said. “That’s where this program is going, is forward. We have talent here at Denmark. We just have to get the numbers up and we have to believe. And these guys believe. I told them to let the pain sting for 24 hours and then let’s get ready for Wrightstown.
“Because when (Wrightstown) gets this game film, it’s going to be a wakeup call.”