By Scott Williams
MOSINEE – For four quarters, Wausau East was unable to solve the puzzle that was Mosinee quarterback Trey Fitzgerald.
He spent most spent most of Friday night shredding its defense. Most of the damage he inflicted was with his right arm. But Fitzgerald also hurt East with his legs.
None of that mattered. All the Lumberjacks needed was to stop Fitzgerald just once in overtime and the previous 48 minutes would be a distant memory.
The Lumberjacks swarmed the senior signal-caller in the backfield on a potential game-winning two-point conversion run to seal a heart-stopping 45-44 overtime win at Veterans Park.
Some celebrations are sweeter than others. After convincing wins over Merrill and Southern Door, the Lumberjacks had every right to savor this one a little more.
Why not. East is off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2004.
“It feels awesome,” said Lumberjacks coach Kevin Grundy of the unbeaten start to the season. “We talk about being WE strong – Wausau East. It’s all about the we and not the me.
“It was a great football game. This is Friday night. This is what it’s all about. Competing and doing your best.”
Fitzgerald, who rushed for three scores and threw for three more TDs, plowed into the end zone from 3 yards out with 47 seconds left to force the extra period.
There wasn’t a single player who saw considerable playing time who didn’t leave everything he had on the field.
The game had taken a physical toll on everyone. Each and every player was gassed.
Count Donovan Leverette in that group. Who could blame him. The senior halfback for East rode a dominating blocking performance in the trenches for 304 yards and four touchdowns.
“I don’t know how much longer I could have gone. I’m pretty sore right now,” said Leverette, who scored on runs of 8, 52, 32 and finally three yards in overtime. “I was so dazed and confused, I wasn’t sure what was happening (in overtime).
“I love my O linemen. I do believe their the best O linemen in the state. They always give me the biggest holes to hit and after that it’s up to me.”
The wear and tear of the physical matchup ultimately played a big part in Mosinee coach Craig Martens’ decision to go for the two-point try instead of kicking an extra point and forcing a second overtime.
“We had guys cramping. Too many things going on (physically). Too many moving parts,” Martens said. “Our kids were feeling ready (to go for the win). We felt we had the right played called. It just didn’t come up for us.”
Both sides faced serious gut checks, especially from a mental perspective.
Mosinee was on the verge of being blown out in the first half, staring at a 28-7 deficit with two minutes left in the second quarter.
Miscues by East opened the door and Mosinee reversed their fortunes behind the lethal combination of wideout Drayton Lehman and Fitzgerald.
Spurred on by turnovers on four consecutive possessions by the Lumberjacks, Mosinee eventually took a 31-28 lead in the third quarter.
Fitzgerald was the catalyst. He completed 31-of-40 passes for 386 yards. Lehman was on the receiving end of 19 passes for 250 yards.
“I’m proud of the way they reacted being down 21 points. The 2018 Mosinee may not have reacted the same way,” Martens said. “A big emphasis for us from last year to this year has been responding to adversity.”
East could certainly relate to how the Indians felt.
After scoring on their first four possessions, the Lumberjacks proceeded to turn the ball over the next four times it had the ball.
Mosinee turned those turnovers into 24 unanswered points and a 31-28 lead after three quarters.
Instead of feeling sorry for itself, East picked itself up and went back to playing big boy power football and find a way to open the season with three straight victories for the first time in 14 years.
“This was great for us. Facing adversity will be something that only makes us stronger,” Leverette said. “That was the best thing to come out of this for us. It’s a confidence booster.”
Wausau East 21 7 0 10 7 – 45
Mosinee 7 14 10 7 6 – 44
WE – Jacob Thome 31 pass from Matt Heinrich (Caleb Gruszynski kick), 8:50
M – Drayton Lehman 14 pass from Trey Fitzgerald (Michal Dul kick) 3:44
WE – Heinrich 2 run (Gruszynski kick), 1:42
WE – Donovan Leverette 8 run (Gruszynski kick), :33
WE – Leverette 52 run (Gruszynski kick), 9:17
M – Fitzgerald 1 run (Dul kick), 2:00
M – Lehman 35 pass from Fitzgerald (Dul kick), :23
M – Fitzgerald 1 run (Dul kick), 8:34
M – Dul 42 FG, 1:48
WE – Leverette 32 run (Gruszynski kick), 11:23
WE – Gruszynski 23 FG, 2:24
M – Fitzgerald 3 run (Dul kick), :47
WE – Leverette 3 run (Gruszynski kick)
M – Cyle Kowalski 16 pass from Fitzgerald (run failed)