GREEN BAY — The Notre Dame Academy football team followed a familiar script in the WIAA Division 3 championship game versus Catholic Memorial on Nov. 20 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. The Tritons fell behind, much like in the team’s previous four playoff games, but rallied to defeat the Crusaders 19-17 to capture the gold ball, Notre Dame’s first football championship since 2003.
“When we were down by 10 in the first quarter, I thought it was going to be tough,” said senior quarterback Robert Petitjean. “It says a lot about our team and how we just keep fighting.”
“Once it happened, we didn’t get down on ourselves,” said Vinny Pallini, senior wide receiver/defensive back/kicker for the Tritons. “Then our running back (Nate Ihlenfeldt) went down. That pumped us up. We really worked hard for him because of what he has meant to this team.”
Catholic Memorial had scored 40-plus points in three of its four playoff games leading to the title contest. Notre Dame’s defense intercepted four passes to keep the Crusaders’ offense in check.
The Tritons trailed 17-13 entering the fourth quarter. Notre Dame took the lead when Petitjean rolled left and connected with junior wideout Johnny Santaga on a 32-yard touchdown pass with a little more than three minutes to play.
“We were in a quarterback battle when practice began,” said Petitjean. “It was never an issue. We get along great. (Santaga) made some big plays at receiver for us all year. That’s really what this team was about. We played for each other.”
Team chemistry extended off the field, including living out their faith. The football team held prayer services each week and many players attended morning Mass at Notre Dame during the season.
Head coach John Nowak pointed to the character of his team during a championship celebration at the school.
“Many a night I sat around and wondered if I would get this opportunity again,” he said. “God gave me this great bunch of kids and made it possible. This is one of the best groups of kids, if not the best, I’ve coached in my life. This day was for them and about them.”
“It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a little kid and to do it with this team is unbelievable,” said Pallini. “They (Catholic Memorial) were really good. It took an awesome group effort by our entire team and our coaches. We are so happy that we were able to do this together.”