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Co-op perfect so far in first season
Black Hawk, Warren players embraced the chance to play alongside one another
players celly
Black Hawk-Warren QB Ethan Williams (10) jumps for joy while celebrating with teammates after the Warriors punched their way to the WIAA Division 7 football state championship with a 34-7 win over Oshkosh Lourdes Nov. 15 at Middleton. - photo by By Thomas Gunnell

SOUTH WAYNE — Black Hawk capped an unbeaten season in 2018 by defeating Edgar 22-15 in the WIAA Division 7 state championship game at Camp Randall Stadium. This year, the Wildcats will get a shot at revenge — except for that the Warriors will come in as ready as ever.

“I think it’s a little both ways — since we played them last year, we know what their schemes are and what they are trying to do. Maybe they’ll try to switch it up,” senior Jaylen Rufenacht said.

The Warriors are 39-1 in their last 40 games, with the lone loss coming in the 2017 state championship to Bangor. It’s the program’s fifth appearance at Camp Randall, and the fourth since 2013. Twice (2013, 2018), Black Hawk has walked away with a gold ball.

“It’s my third time there, and it gets more exciting every year. My last game is Camp Randall — it’s just a great feeling,” Rufenacht said. “It’s just a great feeling with all those Warren guys — getting them to the Camp.”

Warren joined the co-op this fall after decades playing in the Northwest Upstate Illini (North) Conference alongside Orangeville, Stockton and Illinois powerhouse Lena-Winslow. The mutually shared nickname of “Warriors” and proximity of the two schools (7.5 miles as the crow flies) made the cooperative a near-perfect fit.

“It was a little difficult at first — we didn’t know each other. But as we continued to grow together as a team we started getting along,” said senior quarterback Ethan Williams of Warren. “I’ve gotten to enjoy every single day I’ve come up here. Joining the co-op has been great so far — for me at least, but I think I speak for a lot of the Warren guys, too.”

Blending the two schools together was both smooth and rocky. Both the players and coaches were willing from the start to mesh, and competition was added on the practice field as students from both schools jockeyed for playing time.

“It was definitely a big changeup in the beginning. We did activities together to try to get that bond in, but they had to come here and learn a whole new system. We came together and we are brothers now,” Black Hawk senior lineman Avery Baumgartner said. 

“Being a family out there really helps us out,” Rufenacht added.

While South Wayne and the Black Hawk School District has almost gotten used to annual trips to state championships over the past decade, Williams said the buzz in his hometown is unlike anything he has ever seen.

“It’s been crazy down in Warren. It’s something we haven’t done in football — ever. The whole town is basically shut down,” Williams said. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like (stepping onto the field), but I know it’s going to be a great time. I can’t wait to enjoy that moment.”

Perhaps the hardest part of it all was simply getting all the players on the proper timing of first- and second-steps, and the general execution of the Xs and Os.

“Coach Milz did a great job this summer of getting me involved and sitting down with me and focusing with me on what I needed to do to fit in the team. He deserves all the credit for that,” Williams said.

Black Hawk-Warren opened the season with blowout nonconference wins over Fennimore and Cuba City — two Division 6 playoff schools that each made it to Level 3 in 2018. In Week 3, the Warriors were in control of Potosi-Cassville the entire game, but the final score of 24-12 was much closer than the eye-test would have guessed.

In Week 4, Black Hawk-Warren pounded Division 5’s Waterloo in a nonconference game 35-0, and a week later smacked then sixth-ranked Benton-Scales Mound-Shullsburg 33-6.

The tightest game of the season for the Warriors was a 22-20 squeaker at River Ridge.

“That River Ridge game was kind of an eye-opener. It was really close, 22-20, and it kind of opened our eyes that we had to work — it’s not going to be just a cakewalk,” Baumgartner said.

In Weeks 7 and 8, the Warriors laid waste to inferior opponents Southwestern and Boscobel, blanking each while putting up 51 and 55 points. The Warriors ended the regular season with a 27-7 win over rival Pecatonica-Argyle.

The Warriors kept rolling in the postseason, dominating Cashton 52-8 in Level 1, then upending Ithaca 40-6 the next week. River Ridge had hopes of an upset in Level 3, only for the Warriors to restore order in the power rankings with a 49-7 victory. 

In the Division 7 semifinal against unbeaten Oshkosh Lourdes Academy, which was ranked fifth to close the regular season, Black Hawk-Warren found their stride in the second quarter. Ethan Williams, Cayden Milz and Jaylen Rufenacht each scored to put the Warriors up 20-7 at halftime, and the game broke open in the second half as the Warriors used a Williams interception and a key turnover on downs to drown out the private school 34-7.

“It’s just the greatest feeling ever. We worked so hard to get here. We set that goal back in March, and we’ve really worked hard to get back,” Milz said.

The offensive soup de jour for the Warriors is simple — they plan on using their large and athletic offensive line to open holes in the line of scrimmage for Milz, Rufenacht and the rest of the running game. That strategy has worked as Black Hawk-Warren has amassed over 4,400 yards rushing on the season — at an average of 340 per game and 8.2 yards per attempt. The Warriors also have 59 touchdowns on the ground to just one lost fumble.

Cayden Milz leads the team with 1,593 yards and 22 TDs on the season. As a ball boy for his father, coach Cory Milz, Cayden has been a part of the program for as long as he can remember and has shared the field with brothers Lucas and Brody, who currently plays for UW-Oshkosh, the WIAC co-champion this fall.

“It’s really special; just a dream come true. I’ve looked up to a lot of really good football players,” Cayden Milz said. “I just know that this is my last game both with my brothers and with (dad Cory) as the coach, so I’m really going to play my heart out. It’s going to be a special moment.”

Rufenacht has 1,201 yards rushing on 120 carries — a 10.0 yards per carry mark — with 19 touchdowns. Cody Blosch has 743 yards and five TDs on 91 attempts and Williams has kept the ball 48 times for 230 yards and six scores. The team’s fourth option at running back — sophomore Lucas Milz — has 228 yards on 31 carries (7.4 ypc) with five scores.

Black Hawk-Warren is hardly one-dimensional, though. Williams has held his own in the passing department completing 47 of 86 passes for 738 yards and 10 TDs with four interceptions. 

Nick Whitcomb, Brady Hagen and Lucas Flanagan have caught some big passes for the Warriors this year, but it’s been Rufenacht that has been the biggest receiving threat. An electric threat to make a play wherever he’s positioned, Rufenacht missed almost all of last season recovering from injury. This year he has 15 grabs for 281 yards (18.7 ypc) and five touchdowns this season and is also a return threat.

While Black Hawk-Warren’s offense is stunning and efficient (502 total points, 38.6 ppg), it’s the Warriors’ defense that takes the top billing. Opposing teams have scored just 87 points on Black Hawk-Warren this year (6.6 ppg), with over half of those points coming in the fourth quarter with the game out of hand and the reserves and junior varsity players on the field.

The Warriors have held opponents to just 848 yards passing, despite throwing 149 times. Six TDs by opponents have come via the pass, while Black Hawk-Warren has intercepted 10 balls. On the ground, teams fare even worse. Opponents have gained just 667 yards rushing (51.3 ypg) with three touchdowns and three lost fumbles.

While the Warriors have solid depth around the board, it has been the seniors who have stepped up the most. Seventeen Warriors will be playing in their final game at Camp Randall, including Rufenacht, Williams, Andrew Slichenmyer, Cayden Rufenacht and linemen Gunner Foecking, Nick Hull, Hunter Metz, Reid Raisbeck, Josh Lozada and Avery Baumgartner.

“After the (Lourdes) game, it didn’t quite hit me yet. It wasn’t really until (Monday) when coach (Cory) Milz was talking to us in the locker room about how it’s the last game and it’ll get watch edon TV. We outlived all the other teams. We have only two or three more days of practice, and it just hit me kind of today,” Rufenacht said.

Edgar, meanwhile, will have 16 seniors on the field, including leading running back Kaleb Hafferman and backfield mate Mason Stoudt. Hafferman has 1006 yards on 150 carries with 25 scores to lead the Wildcats this season. Stoudt has 347 yards on 59 touches with eight scores.

“There were a few of us up at the (2018) game. We were following them in playoffs,” said Williams, who admitted to not paying much attention to what Edgar brought to the table, focusing instead on his future teammates. “I don’t really remember the Edgar team much — I just remember that big 10-minute drive that they had last year. It was a pretty fun game to watch. We were excited for them last year and we’re just glad to be a part of it this year.”

Edgar uses a variety of players to run the ball and picks out its passing opportunities. The Wildcats have gained 944 yards through the air this season exclusively using junior QB Konnor Wolf. On the ground, Edgar has gained 2,376 yards and 47 TDs, averaging 6.1 ypc and 182.8 ypg. Opponents, meanwhile, have thrown for just 383 yards against Edgars’ vaunted defense and have rushed for 816 yards with just four touchdowns total in 13 games.

Edgar’s lone loss was a 6-0 defeat to Stratford in Week 8. Stratford is a Division 5 state qualifier and has turned heads this season by going 12-straight weeks without allowing a point before Amherst scored a touchdown in the semifinal. The 2019 state championship marks the 13th title game in Edgar’s history — all under head coach Jerry Sinz.

Baumgartner, an all-region selection with back-to-back Six Rivers Conference lineman of the year awards, said that winning a second gold ball would trump the individual accolades. “It would be everything. Especially my senior year, it’s my last game — bringing that gold ball home would be everything.”