Mequon - It took just three plays for the Homestead defense to make its presence known in Friday's WIAA Division 2 matchup with Hortonville, with senior David Anderson's interception, but that was just the beginning.
An overwhelming performance that allowed just 20 yards, tallied five sacks and two interceptions in the first half alone did more than enough to lead the way to a 42-3 victory for the No. 2-seeded Highlanders over the seventh-seeded Polar Bears.
'That interception at the start of the game set the tone for the whole night,' Homestead coach Dave Keel said. 'The defense is just getting better night in and night out. That's what you want to see is kids improving.'
With the win, the Highlanders (8-1) advanced to host North Shore rival Cedarburg (7-2), in a WIAA Division 2, Level 2 playoff game at 7 p.m. Friday. The Highlanders hammered the Bulldogs, 41-10, in a league game earlier this season. Cedarburg overpowered visiting Ashwaubenon, 42-16, to advance.
Breaking an annoying trend
With that rematch, Homestead will try to break an annoying three-year trend. The Highlanders, after years of advancing deep into the state playoffs have fallen in the second round in each of the last three seasons. Last year, it was a frustrating loss to Milwaukee Riverside.
But they are playing well now, as evidenced by the trouncing of Hortonville (6-3).
Homestead (8-1) went up 14-0 less than a minute into the second quarter with senior quarterback Jake Laihinen's one-yard sneak at the goal line. Just two plays into the next possession, senior defensive end Ryan Stendler intercepted a tipped Andrew Thompson pass.
'We have been practicing screen all week,' the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Stendler said. 'The first few we didn't recognize very well. After (senior defensive lineman) Henri Shein tipped the ball, I just brought it down.'
With just 10 yards to go, Laihinen scored on a five-yard draw just two minutes, 18 seconds after his first touchdown.
'On all sides of the ball we are just playing well,' Stendler said of the co-North Shore Conference champs. 'With the offense playing as well as they have, they have picked up (their game), we (as a defense) help them, and they help us, as well.'
The Highlanders amassed 311 yards of offense Friday, all but 31 of which came on the ground.
Defense stymies Bears
The Polar Bears had one drive that advanced deeper than midfield in the second half, and it was helped by a pair of pass interference calls.
'One of our goals each week is to keep teams outside of the 40-yard line,' Stendler said. 'It's something we take pride in and we've been doing well with it. The offense likes it, too, because it means they are playing on short fields to work the ball and score.'
With senior running back Shaquille Cole racking up 111 yards on 12 carries and senior Jay Schneider adding 93 yards on seven carries and a touchdown apiece, the Highlanders had things working.
'We are a quick strike offense usually,' said Keel, noting Schneider's 60-yard scamper to open the scoring in the second half and a 50-yard punt return for the senior. 'The offensive line did a nice job finding holes for guys.'
The Hortonville passing game, led by Thompson, had been the backbone of the Polar Bears attack all season, throwing for more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns and one interception. But Thompson completed just nine-of-20 passes for 76 yards and two interceptions, both of which led to Highlanders touchdowns. Add to that the seven sacks, netting 56 yards in lost yardage, and Homestead made it tough all night for the Polar Bears to move the ball with any sort of effectiveness.
'All week we have been studying their passing game,' Stendler said. 'We were focusing on where to key the blitzes and where to bring the pressure on.'
And then he looked ahead to the showdown with the Bulldogs.
'Cedarburg is always a big game because they are right down the road,' Stendler said. 'It's going to be a big game for us. We are going to be fired up like we were before, but it is going to be a different team because it is the playoffs. It's just a different atmosphere.'
Top-seeded Green Bay Southwest (9-0) visits Pulaski (5-4) on the opposite side of this D2 bracket.