WILLIAMS BAY — The Williams Bay Bulldogs tallied their third win of the season, Friday, while hosting the Martinsville Blue Streaks – a non-conference team from Illinois. They beat the Blue Streaks 24-16.
A nonconference game this late in the season is rare, but Bulldog head coach Derek Diehl said there were some unusual circumstances he and the Williams Bay athletic department were forced to work around.
This season, Oakfield High School dropped out of the Trailways small team conference and put its struggling program into an 8 man football league.
“This left a void in our schedule,” Diehl said.
And that void fell on homecoming weekend — the final home game of the season. The last time Bulldog seniors would get a chance to play on their home turf.
Diehl said he and Bulldogs Athletic Director Mike Coolidge searched for months for a replacement team.
“I looked for literally 90 days for an opponent,” Diehl said.
Unfortunately, the only in-state teams available to play were Division II, III or IV programs. Williams Bay is in Division VII.
Diehl didn’t mind playing up a few divisions, he said, but not on homecoming weekend.
“Playing Division II when you’re Division VII,” Diehl said. “What do we really have to lose? It’s a win just suiting up against those kids … but with the fact that it was homecoming we definitely didn’t want to go out and embarrass ourselves and take on a program that was six-times the size of our school.”
Diehl looked for programs similar in size to Williams Bay with little to no success. He looked in Michigan and Minnesota, he said, and was unsuccessful.
Then, on the day before he was going to throw in the towel, he stumbled across Martinsville’s website. The school was in Illinois — not an unreasonable distance to travel.
“They said they were looking for a game and it just fell into place,” he said. “The next question was: ‘how many kids are in your school?’”
Martinsville is about 20-30 students smaller than Williams Bay, Diehl said. It was a perfect match.
With the help of the school’s booster club and the local Lions Club chapter, Diehl said they were able to cover the small Martinsville program’s travel expenses and provide accommodations for the night.
“A small school like that, they didn’t have the funding to play all the way out here,” Diehl said. “So we’re going to feed them and house them and send them on their way. Hats off to them, they came and played hard.”
Both teams did play hard. Martinsville and Williams Bay went blow-for-blow for much of the game.
Williams Bay was up 6-0 at halftime, scoring off field goals in the first and second quarters. But Martinsville came ready to play, and took the lead in the third quarter with a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
The game was 8-6 Martinsville entering the fourth quarter. Then the Bulldogs broke things open.
They scored 18 points in the fourth quarter and went up 24-8. The Blue Streaks found the end zone once more and converted another two-point conversion, but it was too late.
The Bulldogs held on for the win.
Quarterback John Higgins ran for a 21-yard touchdown with 11:19 left in the fourth to put Williams Bay up 12-8.
Then an impressive, heads-up play by Bulldogs cornerback Michael Guss turned sealed the game for the Bulldogs.
Earlier in the game, the Blue Streaks had run a screen that Williams Bay was not prepared for. Diehl said they hadn’t seen that kind of screen from anyone in their conference and weren’t able to watch film of Martinsville before the game.
But in the fourth quarter, the Bulldog defense was ready.
Diehl said they made an adjustment on defense and put an extra player on the line to the side they anticipated the screen. This move, he said, freed a linebacker – an extra defensive player that the Blue Streaks did not have enough pulling blockers to cover.
The linebacker made a big hit, and the Blue Streaks’ ball carrier dropped the lateral toss on the screen. Guss saw his opportunity.
“I just saw the ball,” Guss said. “My teammate hit the guy and [the ball] just went over his head. I picked it up knowing I could run it back, and I ran it back.”
Guss scooped up the botched lateral and ran it back for a touchdown. His scoop put the Bulldogs ahead and gave them momentum that the Blue Streaks could not overcome.
“I’m just ecstatic,” Guss said. “I feel it in the crowd, I feel it in the team. I don’t know; it feels great, it’s insane.”
After two tough losses, Diehl and Guss said it was a win the team needed for a program that has turned over a new leaf.
“Last week was a bummer,” Guss said. “Coming into this week, we just had a bunch of fierce play in us, so we just unleashed it as much as we could. And we just, we wanted this one so bad.”
After a tough loss to Fall River last week in which the Bulldogs gave up five interceptions, Diehl said they stressed winning the turnover battle this week more than they had in the past. And it paid off.
The Bulldogs defense picked off the Blue Streaks’ quarterback for five interceptions a week after giving up as many to Fall River. Guss’s fumble recovery gave the Bulldogs six turnovers.
“Two key items in a football game are turnovers and penalties,” Diehl said. “And in a close one, that’s what’s going to help push you through and persevere.”
The Bulldogs will finish their season against two conference opponents. Next week, they will play last-place Hustisford, and the next week, fourth-place Cambria-Friesland.
“We know that if we win our next two games, there’s a possibility we could actually get a last-place playoff seed with a winning record,” Diehl said. “So we know what’s at stake.”
This is the first season in recent memory the Bulldogs have had a shot at the playoffs. After five consecutive no-win seasons between 2007 and 2011, this is a big turn-around.
In Diehl’s second year as head coach, the Williams Bay program is gaining traction.
“It’s definitely not just me,” he said. “It’s a group effort from our coaching staff, and the administration has been supportive of me and the coaches the whole way through.”
Williams Bay has updated its training equipment, and upgraded its program under Diehl. The Bulldogs will play conference opponent Hustisford, Friday. The game starts at 7 p.m. at Hustisford.
Mike Coolidge is an employee of the Lake Geneva Regional News.