Fireworks burst overhead. A cannon packed with gunpowder boomed from the north end zone. Students with painted faces turned the bleachers into a sea of black and red that rippled with school pride.
Badger High School takes homecoming seriously, and a week after an unexpected loss to Wilmot, the Badgers found themselves in a serious game – one that could decide if they get a share of the Southern Lakes Conference title.
Through the first quarter and a half, neither Badger or Elkhorn had been able to score. Both teams had already punted – Badger once, Elkhorn twice. The Badgers had failed to convert on two fourth down attempts.
Elkhorn had the ball and was driving. Just under six minutes to go in the first half. The Elks lined up on the Badger 15.
It was a handoff.
Badger senior Tanner Gullickson charged the Elkhorn backfield and knocked the ball loose from the hands of Elkhorn running back Keenan Leahy four yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Senior Matt Reynolds scooped up the ball and took off 81-yards for a touchdown.
The crowd roared. The cannon boomed. Fireworks lit up the clear October sky. Badger hit the gas.
“It was just right place, right time,” Reynolds said. “And once we picked up (the fumble) we just took off. And everyone was doing their job.”
Badger won 27-7.
“Nothing was really working at the beginning of the game so they kind of switched me up,” Reynolds said. “Had me blitzing off the edge with the tight end and I was just hustling through the play and one of our players just stripped it out. It was really just a team play and I was just there to pick it up.”
Reynolds had three touchdowns Friday night. Two came on offense, where he plays running back.
Fullback Andrew Allen had left the game with an injury during the opening drive of the first quarter and the offense struggled to adjust without their feature back.
“(Allen) is definitely a key player,” Reynolds said. “But it all comes down to the offensive line doing their job, and they really just opened things up for us.”
After Reynolds’ scoop for a touchdown on defense, the offense started generating movement.
“You could tell we just had a little residue from last week,” Badger head coach Matt Hensler said. “You know just a little; not quite hitting on all cylinders. And then the scoop-and-score; so giant. That really sparked us and allowed our kids to fight back a little bit.”
Badger entered the second half with more energy. During their second drive of the third quarter, the Badgers went 61 yards in seven plays for a touchdown. Reynolds sprinted four yards into the end zone off a pitch from quarterback Collin Broderick with 2:06 left in the third.
The Elks put together a solid 77-yard drive that ended in a 1-yard rushing touchdown with 9:20 to go in the fourth quarter, but those were the only points they would score. Reynolds and senior Tony Ashley would each find the end zone before time expired in the fourth.
Last week Badger lost what Hensler called a heart-breaker to Wilmot.
“It took us a little while to shake it off to be honest,” he said. “Frankly, kids and coaches were heart-broken. And I think that’s probably the only word I can really choose.”
Hensler said that by Wednesday of last week, his team had shaken off the loss, but he couldn’t deny that the offense came out flat in the first half.“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “It’s certainly nothing you can put your finger on. It’s just one of those intrinsic, weird football things, you know? Our kids were ready. They were fired up. I don’t think we were waiting, and yet it felt like that.
“It took a big time play from a big time senior, and we had a ton of those – (Reynolds) is certainly not the only one.”
Hensler credited the play of Evan Gibson and Joshua Doyle, who had dominant defensive performances, along with the entire senior class: “you can list them all, go ahead.”
The Badgers put together a solid defensive effort that Elkhorn could not overcome. When the game ended, the student section emptied and rushed the field.
A fireworks display lit up the sky.
A group of players laid down on the grass to watch with their hands behind their heads.
“To the kids’ credit, to the senior’s credit, they were able to shake it off,” Hensler said of last weeks’ loss. “But I’m proud of these guys for putting it behind them and re-focusing and re-tooling their goals. And I’m happy with how they responded.”
A few seniors had wet eyes after playing their last game at home.
Friends and family members crowded around the players.
At 7 p.m. on Friday, Badger will face Union Grove. If they win, they get a piece of the conference championship. If they lose, their fate is out of their hands.
Union Grove has been improving each week, Hensler said.
“It’s a big old week for us.”