It wasn't supposed to end this way. Brookfield East's dream season went down the drain when Whitefish Bay suddenly unleashed all-world back Rashadeem Gray in the second half.
As a result, the Spartans dropped a 24-14 Level 3 playoff game on Friday, losing a game they had held the lead until 3 minutes, 53 seconds left to play.
"It wasn't meant to be," said a emotional Spartans coach Tom Swittel, whose team had a 14-3 lead early in the third quarter and was still holding that advantage when the fourth period started.
Swittel pointed toward a turning point in the third quarter when Bay was starting to put together some momentum as East had just lost senior defensive back/receiver Brian Smith to an injury.
"We didn't lose because Brian got hurt," he said. "It did happen to coincide with a huge momentum change - that's for sure. That's no excuse.
"We would have liked to have had him, but we didn't. You've got to find a way to win without him and we didn't."
Gray was turned loose and carried the ball 22 times for 170 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, both coming in the final minutes of the game.
Gray finished with 193 yards on 28 carries that included the game-clinching 59-yard TD burst with 1:45 remaining and the go-ahead TD on an 18-yard pass from quarterback Grant Menard with 3:53 remaining.
The Blue Dukes improved to a school-best mark of 10-1. They now face top-seeded Waunakee at 2 p.m. Saturday at Wisconsin Lutheran College in the state semifinals.
With the loss, East's own dream season ends with a school best record of 10-1.
Bay trailed at the half, 7-3, courtesy of East quarterback Zach Damico's 34-yard TD run in the second quarter just after a mishandled pitch between Menard and Gray resulted in a Bay fumble.
The momentum clearly stayed with East at the start of the second half, as senior receiver Kyle Wirtz returned the kickoff to the Blue Duke 44.
Seven players later, Damico hit Wirtz with a perfectly set-up pass in the flat that went 16 yards for a touchdown.
East was up 14-3 with 8:19 left in the third.
"That was my mistake," said Blue Dukes coach Jim Tietjen. "I called a blitz when I shouldn't have."
Later, Gray keyed another drive and raced 20 yards to give Bay a first and goal at the East seven, but three plays later, the Blue Dukes found themselves with a fourth and goal on the East five.
That's when Menard took matters into his own hands. He rolled out right, evaded one East tackler after another and finally found junior back Turner DeMuth for a five-yard TD pass at the 10:10 mark of the fourth quarter.
The two-point conversion failed, but the Blue Dukes had life at 14-9.
The Bay defense then got its only second three and out of the night on the East offense.
The Blue Duke offense kept going, as Gray carried the ball seven times for 30 yards on the subsequent 10-play, 57-yard march.
Bay storms ahead
But again the Blue Dukes found themselves with a fourth and five, this time from the Spartan 18.
Menard rolled out far to his right, taking the bulk of the Spartan defense with him.
And only at the very last second did Menard throw the ball deftly back into the flat on the left where a wide-open Gray was waiting and cruised into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 3:53 left and a two-point conversion for a 17-14 lead.
East was able to get one first down courtesy of a Bay pass interference penalty, but when a holding penalty wiped out a first down pass, the Spartans had to punt.
And Gray would make them pay for that mistake.
Two plays later he found nothing but wide open space in front of him for the 59-yard score that sent Bay into the state semifinals.
The Blue Duke football team is en route to the WIAA state Division 2 semifinals for the first time in its history.
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