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Somerset football plays in state football semifinals on Friday

Somerset fullback Max Praschak (29) breaks outside for a substantial gain during the second half of the Spartans’ 14-7 win at Ellsworth on Friday.(1 / 4
Somerset quarterback Adam Marty (17) and tight end Gaelin Elmore (right) listen to instructions from Coach Bruce Larson before the head onto the field to start a possession in Friday’s 14-7 win at Ellsworth. 2 / 4
Somerset halfback Brody Penman breaks free for a run that produced a first down against Ellsworth.3 / 4
Somerset halfback Aaron Moore drives toward the end zone before being tackled by Ellsworth’s Nick Taranto (12). 4 / 4

The Somerset football team has the chance to play in its third straight WIAA state championship game.

The Spartans advanced to the WIAA Division 4 state semifinal game by using a flawless performance to win at Ellsworth last Friday, 14-7. The Spartans will face Winneconne in the state semifinals this Friday. The semifinal game will be played at 7 p.m. this Friday in Marshfield.

Winneconne entered the playoffs with a 4-5 record and was seeded sixth in its regional bracket, but the Wolves have been a wildfire in the playoffs. They opened with a 28-6 win over third-seeded River Valley. That was followed by a 34-20 win over Wautoma. On Friday, Winneconne knocked off top-seeded Nekoosa 21-14.

Somerset coach Bruce Larson said he knew very little about the Winneconne team, other than it comes from an extremely strong Eastern Valley Conference. Winneconne was one of four EVC teams that went deep into the playoffs, along with Waupaca, Freedom and Appleton Xavier. Xavier is still alive in the playoffs and Waupaca and Freedom were defeated last week. Winneconne is one of the smallest teams in the EVC, with its schedule filled with Division 3 opponents.

Somerset heads into Friday’s game riding a wave of enthusiasm after avenging its only loss of the season at Ellsworth on Friday.

After the five-turnover performance against Prescott the week before, the pressure was on the Spartans to clean up their act. The Spartans did just that, playing mistake-free ball while taking away Ellsworth’s strongest elements.

The Spartans had to make several adjustments to their defensive lineup for Friday’s game. Cornerback Jon Sullivan fractured his ankle against Prescott, which set off a domino effect in the defensive lineup. Heaven Hunt was moved from free safety to Sullivan’s cornerback position. Bailey White shifted from strong safety to free safety. Praschak moved from middle linebacker to strong safety and Brody Penman was inserted at middle linebacker.

The moves worked out extremely well for the Spartans. Penman had the assignment of stuffing Ellsworth fullback Brandon VanderMarliere, holding him to 21 yards on nine carries. Praschak was a key component in the Spartans’ effort to shut down Ellsworth halfback Dennis Schutz. Schutz was Ellsworth’s big-play producer, but he never got out of first gear on Friday. The Spartans swarmed to Schutz, limiting him to seven yards rushing on eight carries.

The Spartan offense didn’t score on every possession. But by holding the ball for long stretches of the game, the Spartans limited Ellsworth’s options. Somerset possessed the ball for 30:49 of the game, compared to Ellsworth’s 17:11 time of possession.

The Spartans used up a big chunk of the first quarter on a drive that was stopped at the Ellsworth 1-yard line. The Spartan defense came up with a quick stop. Ellsworth tried punting into the wicked wind, but the punt went sideways, giving the ball to the Spartans at the Ellsworth 32.

A 13-yard run by Bailey White on third down kept the drive moving. This time the Spartans did punch the ball into the end zone, with fullback Max Praschak blasting his way into the end zone from 1-yard out. Dallas Johnson scored on the two-point conversion to make the lead 8-0.

While the Spartans played mistake-free ball, Somerset’s defense forced two turnovers in the first half. Reed Baillargeon intercepted a pass to end Ellsworth’s opening possession of the game. Adam Marty intercepted an Ellsworth pass in the final seconds of the half.

Marty was one of the pivotal players for the Spartans. He struggled at quarterback against Prescott. His leadership and decision making were vastly improved at Ellsworth, causing the offense to run smoothly all night.

“Adam was really solid. He took good care of the ball,” Larson said.

The score remained 8-0 until midway through the third quarter. The Spartans were content to keep handing the ball to Praschak, who seemed to be getting five yards or more every carry. Ellsworth appeared to put Somerset in a bad spot, downing a punt at the Spartan 10. Praschak delivered the game-breaker on the next play. He broke through a hole and stiff-armed two defenders who tried to tackle him as he roared downfield. Praschak scored on the 90-yard play, raising the lead to 14-0.

Ellsworth scored its touchdown with 2:22 left in the game.

Coach Larson said he has seen a major change in mentality in his team, compared to seven weeks earlier, when Ellsworth beat the Spartans 27-8.

“We got a lot tougher. We got a lot more persistence to us, more perseverance.” Larson said. “The same plays that didn’t work seven weeks ago were working. What changed? The execution.”

One of the plays that embodied Somerset’s desire in this game was a fumble in the second quarter that easily could have been a turnover. An Ellsworth player had initial possession of the ball before several players piled onto him. When the players were unpiled, Somerset’s Aaron Moore came out of the tangled bodies holding the football.

“Aaron’s a fighter,” Larson said. “He’s a scrapper and he’ll battle you.”

Moore and Dalton Johnston both had key blocks that sprung Praschak on his 90-yard touchdown run.

Larson said the line play on both sides of the ball also weighed heavily in the Spartans’ favor on Friday. He said that was the difference between Somerset maintaining steady success with the running game, while Ellsworth’s ground game couldn’t go anywhere.

Dave Newman
Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.
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