SUN PRAIRIE — The last time the Sun Prairie football team reached the WIAA Division 1 state football championship game was 2012.
That marked the last season when the powerhouse Kimberly football program lost a game, falling in the third round of the playoffs to eventual champion Hartland Arrowhead.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Sun Prairie football coach Brian Kaminski said.
Undefeated and second-ranked Sun Prairie — with its fast, ferocious defense, All-State kicker Alex Oakley and potent, balanced offense led by senior running back Draven Peeples and senior quarterback Jack Zander — will meet undefeated and top-ranked Kimberly for the Division 1 state championship at 4 p.m. Friday at Camp Randall Stadium. Kimberly has won four consecutive state titles (one in Division 2 and three in Division 1) and is owner of a nation’s-best 69-game winning streak.
The Big Eight Conference champion Cardinals (13-0) had a season-long goal to reach the state final and now they are one victory away from a title, which Sun Prairie last accomplished in 1995. But like in that 2012 journey that ended against football titan Arrowhead, another giant — 13-0 Kimberly — stands in the way.
“Our kids, they’ve been excited for an opportunity to play Kimberly,” Kaminski said this week. “I think everybody in the state is. I’m not saying everybody can beat them, but you want to have your chance against the elite program in the state.
“And Kimberly is an elite program not only in the state but in the country, and all you can ask for is an opportunity to see how you match up. And that is what we are excited about — to see where we are in this whole thing. We think we are a pretty good football team. We have a good tradition. But we want to become that elite team.”
The 5-foot-9, 200-pound Peeples, who was a seventh-grader when Sun Prairie made its last state appearance, and his teammates have made it their mission to reach the final since bowing out as a top seed in a first-round loss to Madison La Follette last year.
“That has been a motivation for us,” said Peeples, who scored three touchdowns in Friday’s 26-21 semifinal victory over Muskego. “We have used it as a fuel — like our diesel — to keep it moving forward. I think whenever there is a challenge, we always answer the call, whether it’s on offense or defense.”
The Sun Prairie spread offense couldn’t be more balanced — the Cardinals have rushed for 2,124 yards and passed for 2,124 yards. Sun Prairie, which has broken its program record for scoring, has totaled 32 touchdowns rushing and 30 touchdowns passing.
“That’s unbelievable after 13 games,” Kaminski said about the rushing and passing yardage totals being the same. “I don’t know if you will find a more balanced team in the country. We want to put the other team in a bind and take what the other team gives us, as well. Our offensive staff has done a great job of implementing a new offense, where we want to be a downhill running game and a vertical passing game. We have some RPOs (run-pass-option plays) to build off this, too. We want to make the other team uncomfortable.”
The Cardinals added a receiver, eliminated the fullback and focused on a one-back set this season.
Peeples, a first-team All-Big Eight selection, leads the running attack with 1,112 yards and 19 touchdowns and he also has caught 13 passes for three scores after being ineligible for the first three games. Senior Brian McKenzie began the season as the starter at running back and scored three touchdowns, but Peeples eventually took over as the primary back after returning. McKenzie is sidelined after sustaining a knee injury against Madison Memorial in the first round of the playoffs.
In the first game Peeples played this season, he scored three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) against Janesville Parker. More recently, he rushed for three touchdowns, including a 71-yarder, and scored on a 74-yard touchdown pass in Sun Prairie’s 49-17 quarterfinal victory over Madison West.
“I’m really pleased with what I’ve done so far this season,” Peeples said. “I missed the first three games, but coming back, I wanted to make an impact right away.”
Peeples, who’s also a sprinter on the school’s track and field team, watched and learned while out of action.
“Seeing my teammates doing well is always a great motivator for me,” Peeples said. “I want to be a better player and do better for the team. It put me in the right mindset.”
Kaminski said Peeples stayed focused and worked diligently on the scout team to assist the team at the start of the season.
“He had to earn his time back and he did a great job of understanding that,” Kaminski said. “He made the most of his opportunities and he got more and more carries. … He wants that football. He has grown up more over the course of a three-year span than maybe anyone we’ve had. He’s hungry and enjoying the game.”
Peeples could be an important factor in Friday’s game, running behind an offensive line that has been led by right tackle Anthony Villanueva, right guard Dominic Cooper, center Kyle Connell, left guard David Thomas, left tackle Ben Johnson and top reserve Austin Draws.
“He’s just a tremendous weapon,” Kaminski said about Peeples. “He’s got the size, he’s got the strength, he’s got the hands, he’s got the speed.”
Kimberly’s stout defense is led by defensive end Boyd Dietzen, the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-State Defensive Player of the Year and a University of Wisconsin commit.
“He will be a tough guy for us to block,” Kaminski said.
But Kimberly coach Steve Jones said the Papermakers will be tested by Sun Prairie’s balance — propelled by Peeples; the 6-foot-5 Zander, who has set a program record with 28 touchdown passes; and a tall set of receivers, notably 6-5 junior Cooper Nelson, 6-0 Colin Schaefer, 6-3 Kadon Kauppinen, 6-3 Caden White and 6-3 tight end Marty Strey.
“That (balance) is definitely one thing that pops out on film,” Jones said. “They’ve got a great running back. They have a quarterback who is tall and can see the field. They have tall receivers. They have height like I’ve never seen. They are like a basketball team.”
Sun Prairie now has its opportunity to test itself against the best.
“You have to give them their props for being back-to-back-to-back-to-back champions,” Peeples said. “We will go into Friday’s game knowing they are a great program and knowing we are a good program, too, and we’ll just play football.”