When Waunakee football coach Pat Rice reflects on the past season, he finds satisfaction in the consistent improvement and ability to adhere to the program’s principles on the journey to the WIAA Division 2 state championship.
“This one was great,” Rice said. “I think the kids played their tails off. The last game, you talk about resiliency and not flinching.
“We demonstrated the things we have built our program around: being physical on defense, getting behind the offensive line, playing well on special teams.”
Badger North Conference champion Waunakee (14-0), facing several key injuries and a rock-solid foe, rallied from a 13-0 deficit with two fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns by senior Javian Dayne and edged previously undefeated Brookfield Central 14-13 in the Division 2 title game Nov. 17 at Camp Randall Stadium.
The championship was Waunakee’s sixth in nine state appearances; seven is the most titles in state history.
“The last quarter was something to behold. The whole season was,” Rice said. “It was a pretty special year. I can’t compare year to year, because they all were special. The team just went about their work all season. It was a fitting ending to an unbelievable season.”
For his efforts leading the Warriors, Rice was selected as the Wisconsin State Journal/WisconsinPrepZone.com All-Area Football Coach of the Year.
“This kind of award is really nice,” Rice said. “I am very, very honored. There are a lot of people that I share it with. I feel really good about our kids and I have a great coaching staff. I feel really, really blessed. Our kids and our staff, we do it together, win or lose.”
The 54-year-old Rice, who stands 274-40 with the six state titles in 26 years, said he was aware of rumors he might walk off into the sunset and retire after the victory. But after taking some days to think about his future, he said he plans to continue as the Warriors’ coach.
“I’m going full steam ahead,” Rice said. “I’m getting ready for next year. I’m very blessed with the kids we have here. … I really feel blessed with the staff I have, and the support I receive from my wife and family and our administration.
”Football and coaching have been a big part of my life and I feel fortunate to work with great people and to have achieved what we’ve done.”
The Warriors knew they had considerable talent, but Rice said it was important the players progressed each week.
“We really talked about trying to improve game to game — to improve fundamentally and to keep moving forward,” said Rice, whose team shifted to a spread offense this season to best use its personnel.
He said top-ranked Waunakee played with a chip on its shoulder when the Warriors felt slighted by outside comments that their schedule was weak.
They also grew closer after the September death of former standout player Max Chamberlain, who coached many of the players when they were freshmen.
“We had him in our hearts,” Rice said, adding: “He was close with these kids. He had worked with them.”
Waunakee — which Brookfield Central coach Jed Kennedy called arguably the best team in any division in the state prior to the final — found itself in a difficult spot, trailing at Camp Randall.
Quarterback Nate Carter — who has accepted a preferred walk-on offer from the University of Wisconsin — endured despite breaking his little finger when his right hand struck a helmet on the Warriors’ first series, Rice said. The Warriors won despite missing two key players who were injured — tight end Luke Laufenberg and offensive lineman Gabe Zander — and losing defensive tackle Jacob Frey with a knee injury during the game, Rice said.
The Warriors had to regroup and make halftime adjustments, including trying to stop the Lancers’ jet sweep.
“We felt the next score would be huge — it would bring it to a one-score game,” Rice said.
Defensive end Reed Ryan’s forced fumble and defensive back Jeremy Werner’s recovery set up Dayne’s first touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. The comeback was in motion.
“It speaks volumes about these kids,” Rice said. “We preach toughness and to keep fighting, and they did.”