Defense wins championships.
Oak Creek’s defense proved the old adage true as the Knights defeated Racine Horlick, 39-20, to win at least a share of the Southeast Conference title.
“I told the players, 'That number ’12 is going to go up on that banner and that’s something you can bring your grandkids to, because that’s always going to be there,’” Oak Creek coach Mike Bartholomew said. “That’s a really big deal.”
The title is Oak Creek’s first since 2003.
It didn’t come easily for the newly crowned conference champs, though.
Horlick junior quarterback Rickey Neal Jr. gashed the Oak Creek run defense early and often for 115 yards on 16 carries in the first half.
“He is a special player,” Bartholomew said. “And we knew that coming in.”
Neal helped his team with his arm as well when he threw a 29-yard pass to senior Deion Jones to put Horlick up, 7-0, with 7 minutes and 46 seconds left in the first quarter.
“That’s the first time we’ve trailed all year,” Bartholomew said. “I think we needed to experience that. Because you’ve got to be able to come through and our kids came back.”
Oak Creek’s defense made a statement throughout the game by scoring three touchdowns.
“That’s where we kind of hang our hat defensively, which is great,” Bartholomew said. “We’ve got good players over there. They’re well coached.”
The first defensive touchdown came at 2:53 in the first quarter when senior Ae Vang scooped up a fumble and rumbled 17 yards for the score. The Knights would miss the extra point to make the score 7-6.
Horlick would answer when junior Leon Reyes punched in a 1-yard run to give his team a 13-6 lead.
The subsequent Oak Creek drive was run heavy, as senior running back Virgil Hammond drove his way to a 1-yard touchdown to tie the game up at 13-13 with 57 seconds left in the half.
The score was set up when sophomore Elijah Strong picked off Neal to give Oak Creek the ball at Horlick’s 31-yard line.
Horlick would get the ball back and tried to run out the clock, but Oak Creek called two timeouts during the drive.
The strategy worked when Horlick’s punt was blocked by a horde of Oak Creek defenders and snatched up by junior Nick Baumann, who sprinted to the end zone with 4 seconds to play in the half.
“The punt block for a touchdown, that was the huge one,” Bartholomew said.
The 20-13 lead would be all the Knights needed to secure the victory.
Horlick took a major blow when Neal suffered an injury before the first half concluded.
“When we lost Neal, we lost a little bit of momentum and we just couldn’t look after it in the second half,” Horlick coach Brian Fletcher said. “(Oak Creek) got a big time play right before halftime and we couldn’t rebound from it.”
Oak Creek would add to its lead with 18 seconds left in the third quarter when Derrick Stephan rumbled to a 1-yard touchdown to make the lead 26-13.
“Once we got up to 26-13, with the way our defense plays without Neal in there, (Horlick) was going to have a tough time scoring," Bartholomew said.
Vang took advantage again when he caught and ran in a blocked punt caused by senior Alex Hahn for 12 yards at 8:14 left in the game.
The ball sailed through the air for what seemed like a pretty long time to Vang.
“The second one felt like I was waiting up in the air for a year,” Vang said. “It finally happened. We did good. We executed that play and made sure that (Horlick) couldn’t get it.”
Oak Creek extended its overall record to 7-0 and 6-0 in conference and will take on Kenosha Indian Trail next Friday.