Mequon - It's as right and true as the rain that replenishes the earth, keeps the grass green and makes the football field playable: Defense wins championships.
And it has been bedrock gospel for Homestead ever since defensive coordinator Fritz Rauch took the job over from Matt Oswald in 2000. Oswald had helped pace the Highlanders to their first WIAA state crown in 1999 when Rauch was the linebackers coach.
But ever since, Rauch has taken the position and made it into an art form. Along with valued friends and defensive assistants present and past like Tom Fugate, Steve Manor, Jeridon Clark and others, whenever you find the Highlanders vying to reach the mountaintop of Wisconsin gridiron fame and glory, you will find the defense at the center of the story.
In the three championship wins since Rauch took over, opposing offenses haven't had much of a chance. They blanked Arrowhead 35-0 in 2006 and they frustrated another far more explosive Warhawks group two years later, 13-11, and then just last Friday, they blanked a Waunakee team that had won three state titles in a row and hadn't been shutout in seven years, 14-0.
Rauch felt that the two catchwords that worked best with this particular team were 'leadership' and 'communication.'
'This group communicated better than any group we've had,' he said.
An impassioned and intelligent man who teaches English to both freshmen and seniors at Homestead, Rauch looks for coaches and kids who are smart, intense and tireless workers. People he can trust. He looks to inspire confidence in his charges and hands off leadership duties to those who can handle it.
'The respect and trust I have in people like Tom Fugate (who works with the defensive linemen) is immense,' Rauch said. 'It has far more to do with being friends as opposed to being just colleagues. You want to go into battle? You go into battle with your friends.'
'I liked that he (Rauch) trusted me,' said senior defensive back Riley Pelisek, who for the past two seasons has made the coverage calls on the field for the secondary at Rauch's behest.
'It spoke to me of trust,' Pelisek said. 'I like being accountable and he (Rauch) trusted me enough to lead my teammates. He gave me an important responsibility and I was honored to have that trust and it motivated me to come through for him.'
Pelisek had a critical interception in the win over Waunakee.
The trust has also been manifested from above, too.
'There were times early on, I would poke my head in there (to a defensive game plan meeting) from time-to-time to make a suggestion or two,' head coach Dave Keel said, 'but the time for that passed long ago. I have 100 percent trust in Fritz and the defensive staff.'
Rauch came to Homestead from Zion/Benton (Ill.) in 1995 and worked with Oswald until Oswald took another job.
There has been no looking back since with Rauch working on a few simple principles. One of which goes something like this: 'When we've won (state titles) it's always a testament to the staff and the players, who, at the biggest moments, did their best work,' he said.
Another goes like this: 'Defense isn't sexy, it's not why people comes to the games, but it is how you win.'
Indeed. A quick study of the two previous state championship defensive units that Rauch led including pivotal moments in their evolution follows:
This unit was a like a ferociously swift and enormous shark slicing through a sleepy band of seals. Simply put, nothing could stop it. The team went unbeaten at 14-0, with only two really close games against Whitefish Bay and Germantown during the regular season and in the playoffs the defensive took it to another level.
It was like lambs led to the slaughter. It gave up only two touchdowns of any meaning in five games and actually scored four of their own. Defensive backs Ryan Lunde and Mike Feierstein were the fulcrums of the unit but powerful linebackers like Dillon Forbes (another All-Suburban selection) and Jordan Rennicke and great linemen like Erik Grimm, Qortney McLeod and future All-Stater Shelby Harris were both tenacious and relentless.
Rauch said the team was motivated by the controversial 2005 state semifinal loss to eventual state champ Racine Park.
'They were angry about that game and played with a chip on their shoulder all season,' Rauch said. 'The defining thing about that unit was the speed. We just had speed at all three levels. It made it hard for other teams to play us.'
DEFINING MOMENT: Late in the season, the Highlanders were stuck in one of their almost yearly duels to the death with Germantown. The underdog Warhawks had smacked the Highlanders in the mouth early as Germantown All-Suburban receiver Greg Rogers made two impossible touchdown grabs against a secondary that just didn't allow those things.
Rogers made another great grab late in the third quarter with the Warhawks still holding a two-score lead. It set Germantown up deep in Highlanders territory with a chance for a knockout blow.
But the defense rose to the occasion. It came down to a fourth and inches play and the Warhawks' Hall of Fame coach Phil Datka eschewed the sure field goal and went for the first down.
Quarterback Cody Griebling's sneak never had a chance as the Highlanders front stuffed it.
Shortly thereafter, the Homestead offense rallied and pulled out the victory on a miraculous screen pass.
The team itself never looked back.
The defining characteristic of this unit was power incarnate. The defensive line with Harris in his senior year prime playing both tackle and end and future Stanford star Ben Gardner zealously tracking down opponents from his end slot simply could not be moved. Both were All-State selections.
Alex Bangert and Ben Roeper played the other two positions on the line and woe to those who thought them patsies.
'Roeper actually had the best two final games (state semifinals and championship) of any of the linemen,' Rauch said.
The linebacking corps was also unspeakably fast and strong led by All-Suburban choice Lucas Speaker and Darius Feaster and the secondary was led by a 215-pound hammer of a safety named Bobby Ollman who was also named All-Suburban.
'He could squat 500 pounds,' Rauch said of Ollman. 'That team was as physically strong as any team we've had. … That group was just so confident, because it was so strong. They were just mentally strong and confident, too. They just never blinked.'
DEFINING MOMENT: Middleton scored on the first drive of the game in the state semifinal at Whitewater but then the Highlanders pushed the Cardinals back into the trees with a 35-21 decision.
But that was only a prologue for the immensely physical final with Arrowhead, which had snapped the Highlanders by a 31-7 count in the 2007 state final. The Warhawks had scored 49, 30, 35 and 49 points in their previous four playoff games behind an immense and powerful offensive line.
But that unit met its match against Harris, Gardner and company as they held the Warhawks to 279 total yards as defensive back Tom Engel returned an interception 42 yards for the go-ahead touchdown and when Arrowhead scored with 3:37 left, the tying two-point conversion pass was successfully defended by Pelisek's older brother, Brad.
'That team (Arrowhead) was about as explosive as any we've seen, they had something like 34 plays of over 30 yards in the season,' Rauch said. 'Our goal was to make them bleed slow, not fast, and on that last play (the conversion attempt), Jeridon Clark (then secondary coach) knew exactly what they were going to do.'
A fact that alludes to another of Rauch's favorite sayings: 'When great athletes meet good coaching, that's when you win state championships.'