Prep Football

Williamsburg football embraces familiar underdog role in path to UNI-Dome

Raiders knocked off two top-5 teams, face No. 1 Waukon in Class 2A semifinals

Williamsburg players celebrate their quarterfinal win over Clear Lake. (Chris Landuyt)
Williamsburg players celebrate their quarterfinal win over Clear Lake. (Chris Landuyt)
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WILLIAMSBURG – The role has become all too familiar.

Williamsburg has played the part well and even embraced being the underdog. The Raiders view it as a chance to prove themselves and, so far, this dog has had a dangerous bite. They have nipped two higher-ranked teams in the postseason, extending their win streak to seven games.

“We’re feeling pretty good,” senior lineman Billy Grout said. “We have that chip on our shoulder. We’ve kind of been the underdogs the whole season.”

Ninth-ranked Williamsburg faces the same scenario, playing No. 1 Waukon in a Class 2A state football semifinal game Saturday at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, starting at 7 p.m. The pairing is a rematch of the 2017 title game that Waukon won, 29-0.

The Raiders (8-3) — the lowest-ranked team by RPI in the semifinal field — aren’t conceding anything to the unbeaten Indians (11-0). After all, they advanced with a quarterfinal victory at No.2 Clear Lake and first-round triumph over No. 5 Waterloo Columbus.

“They’re playing with a lot of confidence,” Williamsburg Coach Curt Ritchie said. “They’re believing they can play with anybody. I think that is what we’ve learned the most. Just how important that is and how far it will take you, if you approach it with that mindset.”

Williamsburg endured a rough start, going 1-3 in non-district play. The Raiders could have been considered to be in a rebuilding year for a program that has reached the semifinals in two of the last three seasons. They didn’t dwell on it and thrived.

“I love it,” said Williamsburg running back Kaden Wetjen, who ranks sixth in 2A with 1,202 yards and 19 touchdowns. “It motivates everybody on the team. It just makes you work even harder.”

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The Raiders haven’t lost to a 2A team this season, losing three straight to 3A finalist Western Dubuque, 1A semifinalist Iowa City Regina and West Branch, which was ranked No. 3 in Class 1A and fell to the Regals in the quarterfinals.

Williamsburg was inexperienced to start the year and used that stretch as a chance to grow. Ritchie said there is a consensus that this team has come further than any other Raiders squad. Ritchie praised the leadership of Grout, Alex Jiras and Cole Cremeens on the line, quarterback Levi Weldon and emotional spark and vocal leader Riley Holt.

“We knew we had a long ways to go, but we thought we could get there,” said Ritchie, who has guided Williamsburg to 17 playoff appearances and five semifinal trips. “We felt we could have won a couple of those early games, if we could have been a little bit better in a few different areas. They’ve just grown and gotten better.”

The setbacks helped forge the team and the Raiders’ bond strengthened. They pushed and fed off each other.

“Those losses really brought us closer together,” Grout said. “We really wanted to show everyone what we’re capable of and we’re not a bad team getting beat. We really believed we could do it, stuck together and kept training.”

They rolled district foes and continued that success into the postseason. The Raiders exhibit a trademark toughness with a hard-nosed, swarming defense and a rush attack that tries to control the line of scrimmage.

Williamsburg is sixth in 2A in points, scoring 37.3 points per game. The Raiders have held 2A opponents to 8.5 points and 222.1 yards per game, including 93 rushing.

“We’re never really the biggest team,” Wetjen said. “We’re always going to be physical. It’s a good component to have.”

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Wetjen had the unenviable task of replacing all-state rusher Gage Hazen-Fabor. He has contributed a little bit of everything. In addition to rushing, he leads the Raiders with 398 receiving yards and six TDs on 23 catches. He has a team-high five interceptions and is third with 48 tackles, including 42 solo.

“I really don’t care,” Wetjen said. “Whatever I need to do to help the team. I’m down for anything. It’s awesome.”

Waukon reached its third straight semifinal and poses a much bigger and tougher challenge than any other 2A team. The Indians’ offense ranks first in total yardage, second in scoring and third in both passing and rushing. Quarterback Creed Welch is just shy of 2,000 passing yards with 26 TDs, while Dawson Baures has 1,460 total yards and 18 scores.

Ritchie said this year’s team resembles the 2017 title team and they have watched that game a few times this week.

“They are so similar,” Ritchie said. “They are so good and fundamentally sound.

“You can tell they have a good program in the fact that they still do what they do and the kids they have doing it now do it as well as they did then. Just a real compliment to them and what they do.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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