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Pirates start playoffs at home Friday night

Both defenses gave up yards, but Gilman’s defense did a much better job of limiting the scoring Friday, allowing the Pirates to secure their second straight outright Central Wisconsin West Conference championship with a 58-24 win over McDonell Central in Chippewa Falls.

Junior running back Grady Kroeplin took center stage in the win, rushing for 250 yards and four touchdowns on just 19 carries. The Pirates powered their way to 434 rushing yards and 475 yards of total offense while scoring touchdowns on their first six possessions and eight of their 10 possessions overall.

Defensively, McDonell presented challenges with its passing game, which gained 262 yards on 19 completions. But the Macks turned the ball over three times and were stopped twice on downs in the first half. Those stops kept the Macks from being able to keep up with Gilman’s relentless attack on the scoreboard.

“We knew McDonell was going to be a really good team,” Kroeplin said. “We knew they were going to have some diversity. We just had to struggle through that and get through everything. We said we’ll win as a team.”

With the win, Gilman finished the regular season 5-0 in the CWWC and 8-0 overall. A win by McDonell would have created a three-way tie for first place in the conference with the Macks and Phillips.

The Pirates drew one of the four number-one seeds in the WIAA’s 16team eight-player football state tournament and will host fourth-seeded Clayton (5-3) Friday at 7 p.m. in round one.

The winner will play either McDonell (32, 6-2) or Prairie Farm (7-1) in round two Oct. 29.

“To win it on the road it’s probably even a little bit more special,” Gilman head coach Robin Rosemeyer said. “To finish it on the road against the team that could also be the other conference champion and win it at their place, it really does feel good.”

“We’re pumped,” senior Julian Krizan said after the game. “We had the dial turned way up to nine tonight. It was set up there. We’ll have to crank it up a little more next week, no matter who we got.”

Kroeplin’s impact on the game was immediate. After a McDonell punt on the opening series, Kroeplin scored on a 61-yard run on his first carry on a quickhitting trap to the left side. Only one man had a shot at him and Troy Duellman got the necessary block to make sure Kroeplin scored. The two-point run by quarterback Julian Krizan made it 8-0 with 8:51 left in the opening quarter.

“I had Troy lead blocking for me. He really set it up,” Kroeplin said. “With his lead blocking he just made me get that touchdown right there. Otherwise I probably would have been tackled 30 yards back.”

Bryson Keepers tackled McDonell running back Xayvion Matthews for a 1-yard loss on fourth and two to give the Pirates the ball back and Kroeplin’s 20-yard run was the key play in a short 42-yard drive that ended in Kroeplin’s 12-yard touchdown run and a two-point pass that was tipped but landed right in the gut of Keepers in the back corner of the end zone for a 16-0 lead.

McDonell responded with a 68-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 7-yard scoring pass from freshman quarterback Grant Smiskey to Dale Tetrault and a two-point pass to Ben Biskupski.

But the 16-8 score didn’t last long. What appeared to be an onside kick took a high bounce where Keepers was able to grab it and run. He took it 48 yards to McDonell’s five and Krizan scored from 2 yards out two plays later to make it 24-8. After the Pirates stopped McDonell on downs at their 20, Gilman’s ensuing 80-yard touchdown drive lasted just five plays and Kroeplin more than negated a false start penalty by breaking away from the pile and going 74 yards to extend the lead to 30-8.

“That was a little different play,” Kroeplin said. “That one actually I think our right guard (Bryce Chovan) saved me on it because I was about to get tackled, then he came up and smacked the guy off me, so I was able to break free.”

Gilman’s game plan centered around being aware of Xayvion Matthews at linebacker and, more importantly, defensive lineman Clemett Matthews. For the most part, Rosemeyer said, the Pirates blocked them well.

“It was probably a little bit better when (Clemett Matthews) lined up at defensive end because we knew which gap he was going to take,” Rosemeyer said. “When he lined up at nose and he could slant either way, that caused more problems. We knew we couldn’t pull our frontside guard as much. We had to stay solid and double team him. For the most part, the guards did a good job doing it. It’s a tough one-on-one play for the center when he’s head up on him.”

The Smiskey-to-Tetrault combination continued to give Gilman some problems on the next drive and McDonell marched 65 yards in 13 plays, finishing the drive with a 3-yard run by Matthews to pull within 30-16.

“They kind of ran out of the formations we expected, we just didn’t expect them to throw the ball as much as they did,” Rosemeyer said. “They did run the ball fairly effectively at times. (Xayvion Matthews) had 61 yards running. But for the most part I thought we controlled the running part pretty good. (Tetrault) and (Biskupski) did a good job receiving the ball for them. The quarterback made plays just throwing it up, putting it enough on target to where their kids made some good catches at times.”

In the first half, Gilman even had Braeden Person, normally a defensive lineman, helping in pass coverage. In the second half, Person went back to more line work, while Keepers was switched out from pass rush and went back to pass coverage. Cornerback Branden Ustianowski said his reads were a little different than they were in the two games Gilman faced McDonell last year and took awhile to adjust to.

“They switched it up on us so we had to adapt,” Ustianowski said. “Last year, their QB, if he was throwing a hook or short, he just turned and threw it right away. If he was throwing deep, he’d go three steps back. This year, they didn’t do any of that.”

“It was tough because I’m not used to following a guy,” Person said. “Then we changed it later from me going from a zone to man, then it went back to zone.”

Gilman finished the half with a key 64-yard drive, overcoming a couple of late penalties to score with 7.2 seconds left when Keepers recovered a fumble in the end zone by Duellman, who lost the ball just as he was going to score on a 1-yard run. Krizan passed to Branden Ustianowski for the two-point pass to give Gilman a 38-16 lead.

That lead got even wider just 67 seconds into the third quarter when Krizan was able to bounce a run out to his left for a 45-yard touchdown. The two-point pass to Keepers made it 46-16.

Keepers forced a fumble that stopped a McDonell scoring threat and he intercepted a pass that set up a short 12-yard scoring drive that ended with Kroeplin’s 3-yard touchdown that made it 52-16 and put the running clock into effect with 6:42 still left in the third quarter.

Ustianowski’s interception led to a 66-yard scoring drive that ended with Duellman’s 6-yard touchdown run with 8:59 left in the game.

Krizan added 99 rushing yards for Gilman on 10 carries, while Duellman had 49 yards on 10 carries. Krizan was four of six through the air for 41 yards.

But Kroeplin’s numbers certainly stood out.

“That was just phenomenal,” Krizan said. “He was keeping his feet moving all night. It was a really productive night with that.”

“He ran hard, broke tackles well,” Rosemeyer said. “We needed every bit of that from him.”

Smiskey was 14 of 25 for 180 yards for McDonell, but threw the two interceptions in the third quarter as well. Goulet was five of nine for 82 yards. Tetrault caught nine passes for 114 yards and Biskupski added six catches for 107 yards. News broke Monday that Tetrault broke his collarbone late in the game and will be out for McDonell’s playoff run.

Rosemeyer said it’s also sounding like Clayton will come into Gilman a bit banged up, but it’s the playoffs and his team can’t afford to take its foot off the gas now.

The 2021 Central Wisconsin West Conference 8-player football champion Gilman Pirates. The undefeated Pirates will host Clayton Friday in their WIAA playoff opener.MATT FREY/THE STAR NEWS

With Branden Ustianowski walling off a potential tackler, Julian Krizan has smooth sailing to a 45-yard touchdown in the opening minutes of Friday’s third quarter.MATT FREY/THE STAR NEWS