Bay's Menard, Homestead's Laihinen are quarterbacks making plays when it counts
Both have teams in state semifinals
They're no one's grand idea of prototypical quarterbacks, throwing at times being a challenge for both.
And they've both had to work hard to figure out the finer points of the position with some awkward moments along the way.
And, oh yes, they've both missed the start of basketball practice.
But at this point in their careers, those are just whispers of clouds on otherwise beautiful sunny days for Whitefish Bay's Grant Menard and Homestead's Jake Laihinen as they lead their teams into respective WIAA State Division 2 semifinal games Saturday (see separate stories).
And if they rise to the occasion just as they both have been doing for several weeks in a row now, we may get a rematch of these old North Shore foes in the grandest place of all, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison for the D2 state title game on Nov. 16, where Laihinen's Highlanders would love a little payback from Menard's Blue Dukes for the 14-7 defeat the Blue Dukes pinned on the Highlanders a month ago.
Both came up huge in the stretch of their Level 3 playoff wins last week, both of which came on the road and against previously undefeated opponents. The two-year starter Menard threw two fourth down touchdown passes in the fourth quarter as the Blue Dukes rallied from a 14-3 deficit to beat Brookfield East, and first-year man Laihinen made two huge throws that accounted for 44 yards on Homestead's game-winning drive in the final three minutes against Green Bay Southwest.
Blue Dukes coach Jim Tietjen said that Menard's ability comes from both within and without. Bay does a two-minute drill with the game on the line at least three times a week with chains, and limited timeouts and the whole suffocating straitjacket of pressure that accompanies such a situation.
Further, Menard handles the scout team offense when it's the first-line defense's turn to practice such situations.
"And he only makes us better that way," Tietjen said. "We get pressure on him, we flush him and he makes the same plays that he does in games. He gets to think about things more often in different situations and it makes him better, too. It's a hard thing to get through (the two-minute drill), but all those repetitions help."
Menard used his feet to great effect in exploiting the Homestead defense scoring both touchdowns in that critical win last month, the first for the Blue Dukes over the Highlanders in 12 years. Then two weeks ago, when the Blue Dukes offense was stymied by Brookfield Central in the Level 2 playoff game, Menard went to little used backup Ian Buchanan for a huge gain that led to a breakthrough touchdown.
And Tietjen said that the plays Menard made against East on that cold, cold Friday last week were just special.
"In those situations, Grant just takes over. There's no talking in the huddle, he's the boss and because of that, really makes us better on both sides of the ball," Tietjen said.
Stepping up his game
Keel has the same feeling about his man, Laihinen. Laihinen spent the first two years of his high school career as a quarterback but was shifted over to receiver as a junior last season as Cody Berger was in his second year at the helm of the Highlanders.
But after Berger graduated, Laihinen fought his way through a competitive camp that included four different potential starters.
The Highlanders still remain highly ground-based, but gradually as the season has gone along, coach Dave Keel has gained more and more confidence in Laihinen.
"Jake really has stepped up his game," Keel said. "He has a lot more confidence than he did at the start of the season. He had a little bit of a lull in the middle but he's come back strong."
Such as in the Level 2 playoff game against rival Cedarburg. He sold a great option fake and raced in 26 yards for the first score and then did the same thing a series later, this time from 31 yards out.
And before the end of the half, he made a good throw to end Darius Cross. Cross made it even better by snagging it off the head of a Bulldog defender and turning it into a 34-yard TD reception.
After that, the Highlanders never trailed.
And against Green Bay Southwest on Saturday, Laihinen had a critical early red zone interception, but did not put his head down. With the game on the line late, he made a 26-yard out pass to eventual hero Jay Schneider and then went to the other side to Brett Geschke for 18 yards to set up the game-winning score.
"He really understands what we're doing (from both a quarterback and receiver's standpoint)," Keel said. "We've worked hard with him trying to get him experience and confidence, because he wants us to be able to count on him in the clutch.
"It's been wonderful watching him step up in each situation and then get the job done."
And as both know, it's not about statistics or the beautiful arc of the throw that counts in a quarterback's legacy, it's the wins, the W's that matter, and both are putting up a lot of those right now, right when it counts the most.
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