Arrowhead High School’s football stadium is not normally a welcoming environment for Waukesha North. After all, North hadn’t defeated Arrowhead since 1999 and hadn’t even finished within 21 points of the Warhawks since 2002. But North coach Matt Harris wasn’t ready to leave.
“I really relished looking at all our parents’ faces and our administrators’ faces and our kids, just the sense of pride and seeing how proud people were to be a part of Waukesha North and be a Northstar,” Harris said. “I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life. I felt like that was almost a turning point in our program, just seeing the belief in the kids and the happiness, I’ll never forget that.”
Waukesha North finished off a 26-20 victory over Arrowhead on Sept. 2, a stunning outcome that marked one of the larger upsets in recent memory. North (3-0), perpetually fighting for a shred of success in the Classic 8 Conference, lost its previous two battles against Arrowhead by a combined 91-0. Arrowhead, meanwhile, has been to each of the past four state-championship games.
“It’s obviously not the first game I’ve been a part of that we’ve won, but once they jumped offsides there and there were 59 seconds left, I literally could not do the math,” Harris said. "I know how much time you need to run out a game out, but I could not figure out the math. I’m asking myself, ‘Can we kneel it? Is it really done?’ That’s what was going on in my mind. …My mind was just spinning in that moment, just trying to make sure we were set and we won the game and it was done.
“I really believed we could win this week. I feel like our strengths were their weaknesses, but when you get to that moment after the emotions you go through for 48 minutes, it all kind of froze on me.”
Long time coming
Since a 21-17 win in 1999 – a victory that came down to the wire and also represented an upset after years of struggling to compete – the Northstars have lost 16 straight to AHS by an average of 34 points. But Brennan Demark, who threw seven touchdown passes one week earlier in a rout of Whitnall, threw four more against Arrowhead – including two to Taylor Anderson and another to Kendall Gould and Will McDonald. The Northstars held off a late rally after taking a 26-6 lead into the fourth quarter.
“He’s probably one of the smartest quarterbacks I ever had in my years,” Harris said of Demark. “He’s such a student of the game, he understands coverages, does more film study than any kid or coach that I’ve been around, and he has the arm to go with it. He practices things really fast and knows when to make the right throws and when not to make the wrong throws. He’s 6-2, sees the field, can make just about every throw in the game. Even after this week, I’m a firm believer that he’s the best quarterback in the state of Wisconsin. People will see it as the season continues. Pretty soon, everyone will know he is that person.”
Harris’ job has been more than just finding the right personnel, though. The North graduate has had to help build a culture where something like this can be expected – similar to when North graduate Bob Hall helped his alma mater overcome a decade of losing seasons with a playoff berth for that 1999 team. The boys basketball team has reached back-to-back Division 2 sectionals in surprising fashion, and the baseball team recently won its first regional championship since 2001. Many athletes on those teams are part of the football team.
“There’s not a kid on our team, not a single kid on the varsity football team, that isn’t at least a two-sport athlete,” Harris said. “I’m not worried (about a lull next week after the big win) because they’ve been in big games before. They’ve been in sectional baseball games, sectional basketball games, state track championships.”
With a senior class of 20, a junior class of 30 and many high-level athletes, this is a year North was in position to stage an upset. But in a Classic 8 full of powerful programs, including an unprecedented three state finalists last year, seldom have the Northstars been able to find a foothold.
“I fully believe that we’re a competitor to win the state championship in Division 2 football,” Harris said. “If we can get there (to the playoffs.”
Letter to the editor
Harris made waves with an opinion piece he sent to the Waukesha Freeman last year outlining the challenges North athletes face in the Classic 8. His comments came in the context of the broader realignment discussion for the southeastern part of the state, one that ultimately did not relocate North and Waukesha South to a different situation.
The changing demographics of Waukesha have made it hard for those schools to compete with wealthier and larger districts in the league. It infamously came to a head at an Arrowhead-Waukesha North basketball game last winter (a game North won in upset fashion) when Harris said fans in the Arrowhead student section chanted “food stamps” during halftime in North’s direction.
“Call me whatever you want and scrutinize my opinion, but that’s not fair to the kids because they live in the north side of Waukesha that they have to go through that,” Harris said. “The kids, I don’t think half the kids even read my article. They just don’t care about that stuff. I had more kids lifting weights this offseason, and our percentages are higher than ever. They don’t listen to that stuff and get into the politics of it. Half my kids on my team probably don’t even know how many kids are in Arrowhead school. It’s more the political side that I see, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. But it doesn’t take away anything these kids have done and what this staff has done and what this team is going to do.”
While demographics play into his argument, the heart of his complaint is simpler: Wisconsin’s unique system of requiring a winning conference record for playoff qualification in football hurts smaller teams competing in conferences against larger schools.
“To me, it’s not about ‘couldn’t,’” Harris said. “It’s always been about how it doesn’t make sense, and we shouldn’t. Obviously I’m the head football coach, but I watch our soccer teams and all of our other sports. I see the disparity, and it’s frustrating to me. That’s why I said what I said, and I’ll stand behind it. We have to beat three to four Division 1 teams just to get into a Division 2 playoff system. That doesn’t make sense, and that’s why I stand by what I say. I believed in myself and believed in my coaches and kids that we could get it done. But it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve beaten Arrowhead once in the last 17 or 18 years. It just so happens this is a year I have four or five potential Division 1 football players. That doesn’t happen very often.”
Football is the only sport that considers the regular season for playoff qualification. The argument is tough to make in the given example, with by far the league’s smallest school (Catholic Memorial) routinely recording enough wins and making the Division 3 playoff field, followed by typically excellent results. But Memorial is the league’s lone private school, and thus finds itself unbound by geography, plus it has also demonstrated an uncommon success across sports programs.
South has not been to the playoffs since 1999, and North since 2006.
“I think we can make the playoffs this year, because we’re super talented,” Harris said. “If South is in a different conference, they might be able to make the playoffs. They’re kind of sitting where we were at three years ago, and I believe their coach is going to get it turned around, too. If you can’t keep those kids interested in playing, they’re going to find things to do like jobs, and money and babysitting – those type of things. It’s a dynamic you really don’t understand until you’re a part of it.”