When the Franklin football team needed to get its momentum back Oct. 28 against archrival Oak Creek, it turned to Kyle Lewis.
When it needed a back-breaking turnover and subsequent clinching touchdown a short time after that, there was Latron Kirk-Sprewer.
And when the Sabers needed to salt away the intense 31-28 Level 2 playoff win in the WIAA Division 1 playoffs, they turned to a patient, hard-charging man in Tanner Dykstra.
It all added up to another defining moment for the rebuilt Southeast Conference champion Sabers (10-1), who beat Creek for the second time and advanced to a Level 3 home playoff game Nov. 4 against Marquette, which beat Racine Horlick in Level 2.
"Hey, it's just the next man up around here," said Dykstra, who battered his way for 94 yards rushing on 23 carries, including several for first downs. "We know we lost a lot of seniors last year, but we're coming back strong."
Sabers coach Louis Brown agreed.
"They finally figured out that they're their own team," said Brown. "They knew it wouldn't happen as easily as it would last year (12-1 state-semifinal squad), but this group is awful special. We have two sets of twins and maybe seven or eight brothers and five or six kids who had older brothers on prior teams. We've been preaching brotherhood, and this group has really grown together. They really care and believe in each other."
They had to, as on a warm and windy night, the Knights (7-4) stunned the Sabers with two impressive third-quarter touchdown drives to erase a 10-7 halftime lead for Franklin. Oak Creek went 69 yards in six plays, capped by an Elijah Robinson score from 3 yards out to give the Knights a 14-10 lead. Then, after a short Franklin punt into a stiff breeze, the Knights went 35 yards in just two plays. Quarterback Jakup Sinani (13 for 24 passing for 224 yards and two TDs), snuck in from a yard out for a 21-10 lead with 5:43 left in the third.
Sinani had hit end Ryan Harvey-Turner for 34 yards on the previous play. Harvey-Turner was a load all night for the Sabers, as he caught seven passes for 158 yards and two TDs.
But just when things seemed to be slipping away for Franklin, Lewis stepped up. He took the subsequent kickoff at the 8-yard line, found a seam, turned it up the right side and was off to the race for a 92-yard TD burst that put momentum squarely back in the Sabers' corner, down just 21-17.
"We were down, I knew I had to make something out of it," said Lewis. "When that happened, we were right back in the game."
Oak Creek coach Mike Bartholomew said it was probably a mistake to kick deep in that situation.
"We probably should have squibbed it, but we thought we could have gotten it (the kick) a little deeper," he said. "Woulda, coulda, shoulda."
Brown was not surprised at all by Lewis.
"He told the kick return team. 'You block it up, and I'm going to score,'" said Brown. "He's probably the most dynamic athlete we have on the team. When he scored, we got guys to believe again."
The Sabers defense then got a stop, and an eight-play, 69-yard drive ensued, a lot of it courtesy of Dykstra, who traveled the final 3 yards at the 11:18 mark of the fourth quarter to put Franklin ahead for good at 24-21.
"Tanner simply didn't want to turn in his pads on Monday," said Brown. "Just a special kid, a program kid who hit the weight room and who waited his turn (behind all-stater Gavin Boeck). He's put in the work, and now he's reaping the rewards."
"Hey, the offensive line did a lot of the work," said Dykstra.
Serving as his blocking back in short-yardage and goal-line situations was the All-State level defensive end Kirk-Sprewer. The defensive end wreaked havoc all game long and was a one-man clearing house for Dykstra in close.
Kirk-Sprewer missed several games at the start of the season with a leg injury but has played like a man possessed ever since.
His key moments came a few moments after Dykstra's go-ahead score. The Knights had a problem with the center-quarterback exchange, and Kirk-Sprewer pounced on the football on the Oak Creek 36. Four carries by Dykstra got the Sabers a 2nd and goal at the 2, where Kirk-Sprewer cleared his own way into the end zone to make it 31-21 with 7:36 left.
"I couldn't even explain how bad that was," Kirk-Sprewer said of the early missed time this season. "It was the worst feeling not being able to get back ion the field, but to be in this position felt just fantastic. The whole team came out together tonight."
And the touchdown?
"That was the greatest feeling in my life," he laughed.
"I'm just so proud of Latron," said Brown. "He's just special. He came in as a great player and he's going out as a great player."
Bartholomew said the kick return and fumble were the keys to the game.
"We had them on the ropes, but we let them off," he said.
Oak Creek made one more push as Sinani hit Harvey-Turner for a 37-yard TD pass with 2:53 left to make it 31-28. Franklin recovered the onside kick, though, and never gave the ball back. Quarterback Max Alba, who hit Ethan Wittenburg on a 32-yard first half TD pass (four catches for 107 yards), rolled out and found Lewis for a 14-yard gain and the clinching first down.
The Sabers pounded gashed Oak Creek for 154 yards rushing on 38 carries (Derrick Jones added 46 yards on eight tries) and 389 total yards. Alba didn't have his greatest night (14 for 35), but still passed for 235 yards.
"I think our defensive line just wore down in the end," said a clearly frustrated Bartholomew. "I just hate losing, and I really hate losing to them."
Meanwhile, the Sabers' brotherhood keeps moving forward.
"The Oak Creek kids played hard and stopped us when they had to in the first half," said Brown, "but we kept pushing. There are only eight teams left (in Division 1), and we're happy to be one of them."