The junior class had the talent, and the senior class had the grit, and that's what helped the rebuilding Whitefish Bay football team succeed so dramatically in its 8-4 season in 2016, with a trip to Level 3 of the WIAA playoffs.
The senior class was headed up by the likes of Now All-Suburban all-purpose performer Michael Kirkendoll, and the junior class by a multitude of speed and skill like All-Suburban receiver Alex Anthony.
Both Kirkendoll and Anthony worked with junior quarterback Cade Garcia to create an entertaining aerial circus that had fans and opposing coaches on the edge of their seats, from the crazy overtime loss to eventual Greater Metro Conference champion Brookfield Central in the season opener, to the heartbreaking season-ending playoff loss to North Shore rival Homestead.
"These kids just exceeded a lot of our expectations, especially considering the caliber of the senior class the previous season," said Blue Dukes coach Jake Wolter in his first full year at the helm. "We had a small senior class, but they did a great job leading, and the junior class was just stellar."
Kirkendoll, who also doubled as a high-level cornerback for the Blue Dukes, said the seniors got used to working with the juniors a long time ago.
"Back in fifth grade, we used some of those kids in that class, because we never had drastic numbers in our group," he said. "Attrition just took its toll on us. We knew we had our work cut out for us heading into this year with guys like Matt Bernstein, Teddy Weber and Macklin (Kortebein) gone. Heart really carried us this year. We as captains tried to take control early. We always made the younger guys knew the expectations."
After that crazy 50-43 loss to Central to start the season, the Blue Dukes took off and never looked back, ripping off five straight wins, including an intense 32-25 come-from-behind victory at rival Germantown.
By that time, it was clear that Garcia (2,558 yards passing and 26 TDs) was the real deal, as was Anthony, who was criminally overlooked in recent All State voting despite an amazing 74 catches for 1,145 yards and 12 TDs, all this despite just starting the season 10 months removed from sophomore-year knee surgery.
"I can jump high and go get balls," said Kirkendoll. "But Alex is the best at just finding the ball, locating it out of nowhere. What he and Cade were able to do just shows what dynamic players we had this year."
Anthony was still first-team All Conference in the North Shore and Co-Offensive End of the Year in the league, plus an All-Region selection.
"We moved him around, put him in motion, did anything to give him a chance to get open," said Wolter. "He's so smart with his routes. He never does anything half-speed, and that really shows up in games. He's a spectacular catcher of the ball, does everything with his hands, never with his body. He and Cade had just a special connection."
Kirkendoll did his share in the passing game with 42 catches for 687 yards and six TDs. He also had more than 1,000-yards all-purpose (including rushing the ball and returns). He also had 33 tackles and 31 assists with two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a team-high four interceptions. He finished his career among the school's all-time leaders in interceptions with 10.
"No one loves the spotlight more than him," said Wolter. "He's a guy who will play at a higher level. He has worked for everything he got."
Having played mostly defense his first two years on varsity, Kirkendoll was happy for the chance to show what he could do offensively this season.
"I knew I could play offense," he said. "I did it my whole life (in youth ball), but I was just happy that I was able to play a role, because Cade and Alex knew what they were doing. I knew as a leader that at points, I had to be quiet and just listen."
The Blue Dukes' hopes for a North Shore Conference title were lost were lost with back-to-back late season losses to Milwaukee Lutheran and North Shore champ Homestead, but they rallied for a wild win over Grafton (42-40) to close the regular season, earning a good seed in the D2 bracket. After beating South Milwaukee and Greenfield convincingly in the first two rounds, Bay advanced to the third round of the playoffs for only the third time in school history.
The Dukes had Homestead on the ropes in the Level 3 game, but fell on a dramatic last-second touchdown.
Kirkendoll knows, that for that talented junior group, there could be no better motivator.
"I think that chip on the shoulder that they'll have will be the size of a boulder," he said. "I know they have the skill and the talent to get things done next year. Now it'll be a matter of how much 'want to' will they have?"
Wolter says the "want to" is already there.
"After the game, Michael said to the juniors, 'Don't leave anything to chance,'" said Wolter. "'Start now!' And about a week after that game, we still had 20-25 guys in the weight room, which was a very good sign to us."
The seniors included David Thompson, Brandon Yang, Dylan McFarlan, Chris Caspari, Jake Primack, RayQuan Bolden, Kirkendoll, Andy Oates, Jeffrey Lacefield-May, and Ryan Nelson.