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Dream season ends: Darlington falls in state title game
Walker Weigel (56) waits alongside his teammates for a second-place trophy after a 37-28 loss to St. Mary's Springs in the Division 6 state championship game at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison Thursday. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
MADISON - It was like a bad nightmare for Darlington senior Jason Singer at the WIAA Division 6 state championship game Thursday.

Fond du Lac St. Mary's Springs jumped out to a 21-point lead before Darlington's improbable comeback came up short in a 37-28 loss to the Ledgers in the state title game at Camp Randall Stadium. It's the second straight year the Redbirds (12-2) have finished as the state runner-up and brought home the silver trophy. Last year, Darlington lost the state championship to Shiocton 35-0 and the Redbirds are still seeking their first state title since 1995.

"I had that deja vu feeling," Singer said. "There is a lot of fight in this football team. We didn't give up."

One of the stars of the game was St. Mary's Springs senior kicker Zach Hintze, who booted three field goals including a Division 6 state record 49-yard field goal late in the second quarter and a 39-yard field goal with 4 minutes, 17 seconds to go in the fourth quarter to put the Ledgers ahead for good 30-28. Hintze tied the all-divisions longest field goal state record by Westby's Bruce Olson (49 yards), which he set in 1985. St. Mary's Springs has now won three of the past four state championships.

"If he (Hintze) doesn't make those field goals, I think we come out on top," Singer said. "They (St. Mary's Springs) were the better team today. We just came up on the short end."

St. Mary's Springs sophomore quarterback Blake Bauer completed 6-of-9 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. The Ledgers scored seven points off two Redbirds' turnovers.

Darlington coach Scott Zywicki, who guided his team to wins over two previously unbeaten teams in the playoffs including No. 1 ranked Edgar, was amazed at Hintze's kicking ability. He also consistently kicked the ball into the end zone and the Redbirds started at their own 20-yard line or deeper in their own territory seven times.

"I've never seen a kicker like that before," Zywicki said. "They were in a shell on our side of the field in warm-ups and he was kicking it 61 yards. He's a weapon. You just hope he is off, and he was not. He has a heck of a leg."

The Redbirds got off to an inauspicious start. The Ledgers' 12-play, 63-yard drive, culminated in Bauer's 1-yard TD run on a sneak. The Ledgers tacked onto their lead capping a four-play, 85-yard drive, with Sam Spranger's 1-yard TD run to extend the lead to 14-0. About midway through the second quarter, Bauer tossed a pass to Collin Ottery, who completed the hook and ladder pitch to Mark Austin for an 11-yard TD pass on third-and-goal to give the Ledgers a 21-0 lead.

The Redbirds answered scoring 21 points in 1:46. Darlington senior fullback Myles Leahy rumbled for a 42-yard TD run with 2:43 left in the second quarter. Spranger fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Darlington senior Slade Norton recovered the fumble for the Redbirds. Two plays later, sophomore Hunter Johnson had a 10-yard TD run and Singer ran in the two-point conversion to cut the Ledgers' lead to 21-14 with 2:02 left. Spranger fumbled the ensuing kickoff for the second straight time and senior Kade Carey recovered for the Redbirds at the Ledgers' 31-yard line. Two plays later, Singer raced for a 14-yard TD run to tie the game at 21.

With 57 seconds to go, the Ledgers got a big 14-yard run from Spranger and Bauer hooked up with Anthony Grebe on an 11-yard pass. That set up Hintze's 49-yard field goal right before halftime to give the Ledgers a 24-21 lead.

"It was not a comfortable feeling going down 21-0," Zywicki said. "It was quite a blow to your psyche and our kids responded like we have done all year."

Zywicki pointed to Leahy's 42-yard TD run being the turning point that shifted the momentum.

"It gave us a belief that we belonged on the field with them," he said. "He (Leahy) had a little attitude and juice when he scored."

Johnson rushed for 66 yards on 11 carries and scored two touchdowns for the Redbirds. Leahy rushed for 89 yards on 14 carries and scored one touchdown. Leahy also had a busy game on defense racking up 11 tackles and senior A.J. Coulthard had seven tackles. Singer rushed for 72 yards on 14 carries and scored one touchdown.

"We got down, but we didn't panic," Johnson said of the Redbirds' comeback. "We knew it was a long game. They made mistakes and we capitalized on them. We knew we could come back if we got some stops. It just didn't go our way."

Hintze kicked a 27-yard field goal in the third quarter to give the Ledgers a 27-21 lead. The Redbirds responded with a 14-play, 83-yard drive, culminating in Johnson's 14-yard TD run on fourth-and-4 from the Ledgers' 14-yard line.

Hintze kicked a 39-yard field goal and the Ledgers' defense came up with a big fourth quarter stop to seal the win. Trailing 30-28 late in the fourth quarter facing a fourth-and-6 from their own 24-yard line, Darlington senior quarterback Cole McDonald's 3-yard run came up short. The turnover on downs set up the Ledgers, who iced the game with Bauer's 26-yard TD pass to Luke Gellings in the back of the end zone just inside the pylon.

"I was probably the second most shocked," Zywicki said of the Ledgers' pass play on fourth down. "Our cornerback (Singer) was the most shocked."

The Ledgers racked up 299 total yards including 163 rushing yards. The Redbirds struggled stopping the run with a four-man line and had to switch to a five-man front.

Zywicki said that allowed the Ledgers to attack the perimeter with some big runs.

"They (St. Mary's Springs) made some adjustments from when we played them last year," Zywicki said. "We weren't able to overcome our mistakes."

Zywicki will always remember the Redbirds making a run to state for the second straight year and the team hitting a milestone with three running backs eclipsing more than 1,000 rushing yards in the same season.

"These guys deserve all of the accolades they get because they are special kids," Zywicki said. "I will always cherish the return to state. It's more than just football. We spent a lot of time together watching film and getting to know each other. We will miss the seniors."