"It was probably the best game our kids played all year," said Riverside-Brookfield head coach Otto Zeman after his team fell 34-20 to Bremen in the opening round of the Class 5A playoffs on Friday. "We couldn't hold on, but it was a great effort."
The Bulldogs began the playoffs on a hot streak, winning back-to-back sudden death games to qualify for their sixth playoff berth in a row, but were unable to get past the No. 1 seeded Rebels.
"We didn't think there was anybody in that bracket that we couldn't beat," said assistant coach Jerry Blew Sr. "But you have to win the first game."
The triple-threat of Chris Pesek, Matt Sandrik and Oscar Reyes performed like they were supposed to. Quarterback Pesek finished the game with 387 yards, and three touchdowns, two of them rushing. He also threw two interceptions. Receivers Sandrik and Reyes combined for 20 catches and a touchdown.
The Bulldog defense held the Rebels scoreless in the first half, allowing just 29 yards and two first downs, while protecting a tenuous 8-0 lead.
"It was a real courageous effort by the defense," said Blew. "They were out-sized and they did a great job holding up."
Bremen would go on to tie the score 8-8 and then quickly capitalized on a costly mistake on the ensuing kickoff. The Bulldogs fumbled the return back to the Rebels.
A mistake of a different kind would cost the Bulldogs too. Sandrik was penalized for lining up improperly before a play. That penalty erased a 55-yard touchdown, points that the Bulldogs could have used.
"You can't make mistakes and be courageous and win all the time," said Blew.
Bremen went on to take a 21-20 lead with 6:47 left in the fourth quarter. Time quickly became a factor, so the Bulldogs decided to intentionally allow another Rebel touchdown, so as to get the ball back and try to tie the game.
It didn't work. Riverside-Brookfield couldn't move the ball on their next possession and Bremen scored once more, to clinch the win.
Zeman's frustration was clear. "You've got to take advantage when you have a shot and we had a great shot, but we just fell short."
But the success of the season was also clear. "It was a great effort by our kids and I'm really proud of them," added Zeman.
Now what's left is to look forward to next year. The centerpiece of Zeman's passing offense, Chris Pesek, will return, along with three varsity wide receivers and eight starting defensemen.