The longer I've been doing this job, the more I've come to appreciate the start of a state championship season than the end of one.
That's how it went that warm, rainy Friday evening back in August when I did something I'd never done: I watched a prep football scrimmage.
Granted, this was no ordinary scrimmage. The three-team affair featured Verona, Oconomowoc and Waunakee and curiosity caused me to shed my personal policy on scrimmages because this one was to have marked the start of the fall of Waunakee's mighty prep football empire.
After all, there was no way the Warriors were going to replace nine starters on defense and five on offense from a 13-1 team that won the 2009 WIAA Division 2 state title without skipping a beat. Clearly, Pat Rice is a great high school football coach, but he's not a magician.
And then, sure enough, on the very first offensive play of the very first rotation — Waunakee's offense against Verona's defense — the Warriors' quarterback fired an interception right into the arms of a Verona linebacker. I turned to the guy next to me, tongue planted behind cheek, and let loose with a flurry of dynasty-falling quips.
Waunakee won't throw the ball again all year. The Warriors will scramble to make the WIAA playoffs. Monona Grove can start selling tickets for the Division 2 state title game.
"Hunter (Darger) threw it," Rice said Friday after the final game of the season when I blitzed him with that memory. "We just wanted to make sure that he respected the football. He'd been a JV quarterback the year before. I think all of our kids took a lot of coaching to heart. We're, at times, pretty direct with them."
And, as I've come to expect over the past 19 years watching Rice grow from a coach's kid trying to blaze his own trail to a guy who is two wins shy of 200, his players are, most times, just as direct in response.
Sure enough, that was the last mistake Waunakee made that night. The Warriors ran the football through the Wildcats' defense with such authority behind their famed "hogs" up front that I left the stadium early that night — without even seeing their defense — thinking to myself that Waunakee might not lose a game.
And that's how it turned out on a cold Friday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium as the Warriors wrapped up the program's first unbeaten season — one of the last remaining firsts for a bona fide prep football dynasty — with a 48-7 whipping of Cedarburg in the WIAA Division 2 state championship game.
The Warriors cranked out 394 yards in total offense. Their defense and special teams each accounted for touchdowns. And their coaching staff — that small village of behind-the-scenes guys who help Rice look like Vince Lombardi at times — seemed as giddy as the guys they "coached up," in Rice's words, all season.
"That particular moment," Rice said as he basked in the glow of Waunakee's fourth state title, going back to that early scrimmage, "we try to coach them up on all of those. Our film sessions on Saturdays, even though we may be successful, aren't always pleasant to be in.
"I don't remember the exact situation (of that early scrimmage), but I do know that we're trying to get better all the time."
Contact Rob Hernandez at email@example.com or 608-252-6173.