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SUN PRAIRIE — In a finish eerily similar to last year’s season opener, senior quarterback Jason Ceniti and the Madison Memorial football team rallied in the second half and upended host Sun Prairie on Friday night.

Ceniti scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak with 1 minute, 26 seconds remaining at Ashley Field and junior running back Kabaris Vasser added a two-point conversion run, sending the Spartans to a 28-25 victory in the Big Eight Conference opener between reigning league co-champions.

“I woke up this morning and I thought, `You know it’s going to be this type of game. You know it’s going be a battle. Two great teams going at it under the lights,’’’ Ceniti said. “It was just a battle all night, holy cow. A battle all night. I’m so proud of our guys for not giving up and not getting dismayed when things got tough. We kept chipping at it. … There was so much heart. It was awesome.”

The Sun Prairie defense stifled Memorial’s passing attack, but Ceniti rushed for two touchdowns and the 6-foot-1, 210-pound Vasser rushed for 203 yards on 23 carries and scored one touchdown as the Spartans overcame a 25-17 fourth-quarter deficit.

Last year, the Spartans rallied to win 32-26 behind Ceniti’s two touchdown passes and two rushing scores, including a 1-yard sneak that proved to be the winner.

“Déjà vu, man,” Ceniti said.

Said Sun Prairie coach Brian Kaminski: “It was just like last year — a game that went down to the end. We told our kids it would be a four-quarter game. You have to give them credit. They made some plays there at the end and we felt we let some opportunities slip through our fingers. But I’m proud of the effort our kids showed.”

Sun Prairie, which has won outright or shared the past three Big Eight championships, rallied from a 17-6 deficit in the second quarter Friday night.

Junior quarterback Brady Stevens, in his debut, passed for 260 yards and three touchdown passes — two to senior receiver Dominick Landphier and one to senior receiver Colin Schaefer.

The left-handed Stevens threw his third touchdown pass — a 34-yard strike to Landphier — with 11:55 left in the fourth quarter. That gave the Cardinals a 25-17 lead, but the extra point was blocked (Sun Prairie’s third missed extra point).

Memorial senior Kole Kerkhoff’s second successful field goal — from 33 yards — rallied the Spartans within 25-20 with 7:31 left.

Then after taking over at the Sun Prairie 39 with 3:12 to play, the Spartans moved into scoring position when Vasser broke loose up the middle on a 22-yard run to the Cardinals’ 4. After Vasser plowed to the 1, Ceniti barreled in on second down.

“Our boys up front were saying, `It’s all on us. We’ve got this, Jason. We’ve got your back,’” Ceniti said.

The Cardinals covered 88 yards on the game’s first drive. Schaefer raced 2 yards on a sweep around right end for the touchdown that gave Sun Prairie a 6-0 lead with 8:29 left in the first quarter.

The key play on the drive was Stevens’ 48-yard pass completion to junior tight end Peyton Jenkins to the Memorial 14-yard line.

The Spartans answered in two plays totaling 80 yards. Vasser ripped off runs of 34 and 46 yards. The second — off left tackle — resulted in a touchdown with 7:46 left in the first quarter, giving the Spartans a 7-6 lead.

“Kabaris played his heart out,” Ceniti said. “I am so proud of him. … He’s made huge, huge strides.”

Senior Kam Marshall, who led the Spartans in rushing a year ago, didn’t play in the game for “not meeting team expectations,” Madison Memorial athletic director Jeremy Schlitz said.

After Kerkhoff converted a 31-yard field goal later in the first quarter, Memorial senior defensive back Nathan Francisco picked off Stevens’ pass and raced 26 yards to the Sun Prairie 14.

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On the Spartans’ second play after the interception, Ceniti scrambled 16 yards for a touchdown and increased his team’s lead to 17-6 with 10:51 left in the second quarter.

Sun Prairie rallied with two second-quarter touchdowns. Stevens connected with Schaefer, who got behind the Spartans’ secondary, on a 79-yard touchdown strike with 9:28 left before halftime.

Then Stevens hit Landphier in stride on a slant pattern for a 16-yard touchdown reception with 8 seconds left in the first half. Sun Prairie led 19-17 after the extra point was blocked.

“It was similar to last year,” Spartans coach Michael Harris said. “Hats off to Sun Prairie for a fine, fine game. We knew it would be a physical game. We knew that they had some very explosive offensive weapons. Obviously, it was traditional Sun Prairie football, where they play tough defense.”

Madison Memorial 6 13 0 6 — 25

Sun Prairie 10 7 0 11 — 28

SP — Schaefer 2 run (Konopacki kick)

MM — Vasser 46 run (Kerkhoff kick)

MM — Kerkhoff 31 field goal

MM — Ceniti 16 run (Kerkhoff kick)

SP — Schaefer 79 pass from Stevens (Konopacki kick)

SP — Landphier 16 pass from Stevens (kick failed)

SP — Landphier 34 pass from Stevens (kick failed)

MM — Kerkhoff 33 FG

MM — Ceniti 1 run (Vasser run).

TEAM STATISTICS

First downs— MM 15, SUN 15. Rushes -Yards— MM 256, SUN 108. Comp -Att -Int— MM 5 -11 -0, SUN 10 -22 -1. Passing yards— MM 48, SUN 260. Fumbles -Lost— MM 0 -0, SUN 0 -0. Penalties-Yards— MM 7 -57, SUN 8 -35. Total Yards— MM 304, SUN 368.

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

RUSHING: MM, Ceniti 13 -19, Vasser 23 -203. SUN, Schaefer 3 -14, Schauer 20 -73. PASSING: MM, Ceniti 5 -11 -48 -0. SUN, Stevens 10 -22 -260 -1. RECEIVING: MM, O’Neal 3 -24. SUN, Landphier 2 -50, Jenkins 2 -61, Schaefer 3 -90.

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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.