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WAUNAKEE — The Waunakee football team was in unfamiliar territory Friday night.

Having not trailed this season, the host Warriors needed to overcome first- and fourth-quarter deficits against Badger North Conference rival DeForest, before claiming a 23-20 victory in a WIAA Division 2 second-round playoff game.

“It’s just really big to stay positive on the sidelines — no pointing fingers,” Waunakee senior quarterback Jarrett Wulf said. “We know how hard we practice that we can fight back in any situation. We practice getting into these situations and how to deal with them. No one flinched, and that shows a lot about our team.”

Facing a four-point deficit in the fourth quarter, defending state champion Waunakee decided to take a shot at victory following an unsuccessful 28-yard field goal attempt by the Norskies.

On second-and-10 from the 20, Wulf saw Sawyer Maly streaking open behind the secondary. Wulf unleashed a deep ball that the 6-foot-1, 177-pound senior receiver hauled in — covering 80 yards on the touchdown reception that gave the Warriors a 23-20 lead with 9 minutes, 58 seconds remaining to play.

“He’s a threat,” Wulf said about Maly, who caught seven passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns. “He was the featured target on that.”

“We thought we had some shots,” Waunakee coach Pat Rice said. “That was the plan. We thought we could get a matchup on a couple of things and we did. But (the Norskies) were tough. Nothing came easy.”

Waunakee junior Joe Hauser, a transfer from Sun Prairie, intercepted a pass in the end zone with 7 seconds left that secured the victory for the top-seeded Warriors (11-0) over the fourth-seeded Norskies (8-3).

“We are disappointed we lost, for sure, but very proud of our kids and how they played football tonight,” DeForest coach Mike Minick said.

Waunakee advanced to play second-seeded and undefeated Monona Grove next Friday.

The Warriors scored 16 unanswered points, erasing a 14-0 first-quarter deficit. But the Norskies, who had won six consecutive games since a 31-7 loss to Waunakee on Sept. 7, regained the lead at 20-16 on junior quarterback Trey Schroeder’s 7-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Lane Larson with 6:36 left in the third quarter.

Minick said the left-handed Schroeder, who completed his first nine passes, had been playing extremely well and the coaches wanted to let Schroeder make plays. Schroeder threw for 224 yards, throwing two touchdowns to Larson, who caught nine passes for 162 yards.

“We knew we had to throw the ball against these guys,” Minick said.

The Norskies marched 80 yards on the game’s first drive, capped by sophomore Gabe Finley’s 1-yard touchdown run. A key play came when Schroeder connected with Larson on a 48-yard completion to the Waunakee 8-yard line.

The Norskies’ next opportunity arrived when Wulf was hit from the blind side and had the football stripped away, resulting in a DeForest fumble recovery by junior defensive end Trey Warne at the Warriors’ 30.

On the next play, Schroeder fired a 30-yard touchdown strike to Larson, giving DeForest a 14-0 lead with 3:57 left in the first quarter.

“You know you have to play four quarters over here,” Minick said. “You have to try to stay level-headed and be calm. You know they will battle back, which, obviously, they did. It was good to see us get out to a quick start.”

But Waunakee responded, and that showed the Warriors’ character, Rice said.

“We were never really comfortable the entire night,” Rice said. “They do some nice things. That’s a good football team. We knew they had gotten a lot better from early in the year. We could see it on film. They gave us everything we wanted. I’m so proud of our kids.”

Waunakee junior running back Will Ross — who finished with 122 yards rushing — capped a 65-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown run with 47 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

The Warriors needed only five plays to score after taking over on their next possession. Wulf looked deep and found Maly on a 31-yard touchdown 7:54 before halftime. However, a missed extra point, left Waunakee trailing 14-13.

On Waunakee’s next possession, Wulf again connected with Maly, this time on a 34-yard completion to the Norskies’ 30. When the drive stalled, senior kicker Nate Stevens blasted a 49-yard field goal that had plenty to spare, giving the Warriors their first lead at 16-14 with 3:14 left in the first half.

DeForest, which lost running back Evan Armstrong and receiver Logan Hackl to injuries in the first half, saw a missed 32-yard field goal stymie a scoring threat just before halftime.

DeForest 14 0 6 0 — 20

Waunakee 7 9 0 7 — 23

D — Finley 1 run

D — Larson 30 run

W — Ross 8 run

W — Maly 35 pass from Wulf

W — FG Stevens 48

DEF — Larson 7 pass from Schroeder

W — Maly 80 pass from Wulf

TEAM STATISTICS

First downs — D 12, W 13. Rushing (Att.-Yds.) — D 30-111, W 38-162. Passing yards — D 224, W 180. Passes (Comp.-Att.-Int.) — D 20-30-1, W 9-17-0. Fumbles-lost — D 0-0, W 1-1. Penalties-yards — D 6-47, W 5-51.

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

Rushing: D, Finley 18-77. W, Ross 23-122.

Passing: D, Schroeder 20-31-1-224. W, Wulf 9-17-0-180.

Receiving: D, Larson 9-162. W, Maly 7-172.

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.