This story has been updated to include full details and quotes
By KELLY FENTON For The Denmark News
DENMARK – Struggling programs are not usually resurrected with immediate, notable wins, but rather, in the early stages of that resurrection, with more meager building blocks. Grit, attention to detail, enthusiasm, cohesion and perseverance.
Denmark High School, coming off just eight wins over three seasons, checked off several of those boxes on Friday night, which is why Tom Neuman, charged in his first season at the Viking helm with guiding the school’s turnaround, was fairly upbeat following an 18-7 loss to defending North Eastern Conference Champion Wrightstown at Denmark.
The Vikings fell to 0-2, while the Tigers improved to 2-0.
The Denmark defense shut out Wrightstown over the final 27-and-a-half minutes of the game, while surrendering only four first downs and under 100 yards in offense. This, after the Tigers rolled up 220 first-half yards.
But Neuman already seems impatient to start the climb and warned his team afterward not to settle for moral victories and to prepare to take that next step.
“There’s a lot of emotion right now,” he said. “I love this bunch of kids. But we’ve got more to give. We’ve got to get off the schneid. We can’t say, hey, we won the second half 7-0 because that’s not what’s going in the paper. And they’re right there with me. We are so close.”
Early on in Friday night’s drizzly affair, the Vikings seemed outmatched and outclassed by the speedier, deeper Tigers, who employed a T-formation offense and used all three of their backs interchangeably, making for a real puzzle for Denmark defenders. That puzzle created early difficulty for a Viking defense that shined in a 14-7 loss to Luxemburg-Casco in the season opener, as the Tiger trio of Andrew Pelishek, Ben Jaeger and Jeremy Van Zeeland provided almost all the punch in long, seamless touchdown drives on the first two Wrightstown possessions, and the Vikings trailed 12-0 after eight minutes had elapsed.
Meanwhile, the Denmark offense struggled to get much of anything going before it showed off its first double-wing formation of the season to good effect and picked up a couple of first downs late in the first period.
“I thought we came out a little flat on offense and the defense was a little shocked at first,” Neuman said. “It’s really hard to simulate that offense in practice. It’s a very unique offense and they run it very well. They’re very disciplined. They have a plan and they stick to it.”
Finally, A Stop, Then A Mistake
Denmark got its first stop on Wrightstown’s third possession. The Tigers marched from their own 26 to the Viking 11 before Griffin Skaletski, huge all night along the front three, got a stop in the backfield and newcomer William Wallerius broke up consecutive passes in the end zone to stop Wrightstown on downs.
But a blocked punt set the Tigers up at the Denmark 20 and they required just four plays to cover the ground for an 18-0 lead with 3:34 left in the half. Wrightstown tried to add on before intermission when it converted a fourth down to the Denmark 20. A sack by T.J. Weidman, a strip by Charlie St. Peter and a recovery by Ethan Schwartz, though, allowed Denmark to enter the locker room with some semblance of momentum despite trailing by three touchdowns.
The Viking offense began to show some signs of life in the second half after managing only 65 first-half yards. But, perhaps to be expected for a team with a new coach and a new system still struggling to find its footing, the Vikings made too many mistakes to maintain any momentum, from penalties to lost-yardage plays. That was the case on the opening drive of the second half – a fumbled pitch for a big loss after marching into Wrightstown territory – and again on their second series, when a holding penalty followed by a seven-yard loss on a sweep ended another promising foray into Tiger territory.
The defense, though, was dominant, stalling out the Tigers at the Denmark 25 late in the third and forcing a three-and-out early in the fourth.
Denmark’s touchdown drive started at the Wrightstown 33 following a short punt. Jack Satori, who led the Vikings, unofficially, with 75 yards on 17 carries and completed 8 of 18 passes for 48 yards, converted a fourth down when he found Wallerius across the middle for 16 yards to the 12. On third and 10 from the 18, Satori scrambled left, cut back to the right, zig-zagged through the line and carried a tackler across the goal line for an 18-yard touchdown run. Hailey Aschenbrenner’s kick drew the Tigers to within 18-7 with 7:45 left in the contest.
Others Stepping Up
“We need more guys playing than just the 22,” Neuman said of Wallerius. “Will is a kid who is very talented. He caught the coaches’ eyes in practice and by doing that he gives other guys some rest who are going both ways.”
A negative-yardage punt set up Denmark at the Wrightstown 38 with 5:06 left, but the Vikings continued Week 1’s trend of failing to take advantage of great starting field position and turned it over on downs and that was Denmark’s final hope.
Brandon Wavrunek showed once again that he needs only a small seam to find daylight, though seams were hard to come by for the most part. Wavrunek can stop and cut in an instant and had four double-digit yardage runs on his way to 61 yards on 12 carries. Denmark finished with 184 total yards and 11 first downs, while Wrightstown finished, unofficially, with 245 yards rushing on 47 carries and 310 yards overall. Denmark limited Wrightstown to 3-of-15 passing.
Defensively, it was the secondary picking up most of the stops early in the game, before the front seven stepped up to shut down Wrightstown in the second half. Unofficially, linebacker T.J. Weidman made nine stops, while Skaletski added seven – several in the backfield – and Jack St. Peter seven.
“They’re hungry for a ‘W,’” said Neuman, whose Vikings travel to 0-2 Clintonville on Friday. “I told the kids, I don’t feel whole right now. We need a win to feel whole.”
Xtra Points: Head coach Tom Neuman credited his senior leadership with helping orchestrate a retreat from the abyss that appeared to be opening up when Wrightstown cruised to three touchdowns and an 18-0 lead after its first three possessions. Denmark showed little sign of being able to stop the T-formation attack.
“There is such strong leadership in this senior class,” he said, noting that the players briefly excluded him from a halftime team meeting to iron out the first-half issues. “They made me stay out because they knew what needed to be done. And they set their jaws and got to work. I told them (the second half was going to be a slugfest and it was.”
…The Vikings unveiled a couple of new offensive formations on Friday night. After running out of a basic I-formation against Luxemburg-Casco in the season opener, Denmark shifted briefly to a double wing and even went with four wideouts and an empty backfield on a couple of occasions. “We’ve been working on these formations,” Neuman explained. “I’m just trying to put these kids in a position to be successful and this was a different defense we were up against tonight. This gave us some different ways to get our guys in position. We don’t have a ton of speed and sometimes you have to try to manufacture that.”
…Defensive lineman Griffin Skaletski blew up the Tiger offensive line on several occasions, resulting in a couple of tackles for loss. He helped lead a defense that shut out Wrightstown over the final 27-and-a-half minutes. “We knew they had us a bit, size-wise, so I moved (Skaletski) around a little bit to counter that,” he said. “He had a great week of preparation and he’s a kid that’s just hard to keep off the field. I thought he had a real good game tonight.”