LAKE MILLS—The L-Cats produced three one-play scoring drives.
The Warriors used long, methodical drives to find the end zone.
As the two crosstown rivals traded the lead four times in the second half, Lakeside had the game's last possession. And boy did they capitalize.
Senior Levi Birkholz nailed a 30-yard field goal as time expired to propel Lakeside Lutheran's football team past visiting Lake Mills 30-27 in yet another epic game in Slider Bowl history on Friday.
The Warriors become playoff eligible with the victory, snapping a two-game losing streak -- both at home -- to the L-Cats, who must win their final two games to reach the postseason.
"Anytime you win in the crosstown rivalry it's special, so we're happy for that," Lakeside Lutheran football coach Paul Bauer said. "This gets us into the playoffs which in this conference is a tall task. Proud of our kids."
Lake Mills senior Mason Levake converted a 42-yard field goal with 2 minutes, 15 seconds remaining to make it 24-all.
Birkholz returned the ensuing kick nearly 30 yards to the Warrior 44-yard line. There, Lakeside, which has won four in a row, started a nine-play march. Birkholz faked a handoff to junior tailback Kayden Bou and kept it around the left end, picking up 16 yards on the series' fifth play to move the ball to the Lake Mills 15. Two plays later, Lakeside committed a holding penalty and faced second and 15 at the 20 with 20.4 seconds left.
L-Cat senior defensive back JP Rguig made up ground to bat away a pass on the sideline, forcing third and long. Birkholz -- on just his sixth pass attempt of the game -- hit junior wideout Kole Lostetter, who made a strong contested grab for six yards with 2.9 seconds left.
Birkholz -- thrust into placekicking duties for the first time all year last week with junior Karsten Grundahl injured -- blasted the game-winner, which narrowly snuck inside the left upright but when through near the top of the upright on a calm night.
"Right off the foot, I knew it was going in," Birkholz said. "Lake Mills had a guy run into me, so I knew I had another shot if I missed it. I was feeling pretty good about it even though I was on the ground when it went through."
Prior to Levake's field goal, the L-Cats were driving in the red zone for the go-ahead points before a botched snap on first down and tackle for loss by senior defensive lineman Christian Stuebs set up third and long. Lake Mills senior quarterback Caden Belling aired one out of senior wideout Trysten Thiede -- his go-to guy all night -- but the pass fell incomplete with Bou in tight coverage in the back of the end zone.
"Lake Mills is a very good team," Bauer said. "We overcame so much adversity. We had three starters out on the defensive side and we were scrambling. We made some personnel adjustments at half. It was a struggle at times on defense.
"They came through with a stop defensively when we needed them to. Lake Mills got the tying field goal, but to me that was the stop of the game to hold them to a field goal."
Birkholz ran it 32 times for 213 yards and Bou finished with 121 rushing yards on 19 totes. Lakeside (6-1, 4-1 in conference) chewed clock all game, finishing with 340 rushing yards on 56 tries, good for 6.1 yards per attempt, and doubled up Lake Mills in time of possession.
"A lot of it was the counter option," Bauer said. "We faked the dive in one direction and Levi came back in the other direction. That was probably the biggest gainer for us throughout the night.
"Lake Mills' pursuit is terrific. Those linebackers really flow to the ball well. A little misdirection got us some good yards tonight."
Birkholz, who had four touchdowns including three on the ground, has accounted for nine touchdowns the last two weeks. The Division 1 recruit for basketball thought briefly about not coming out for the team. To the joy of Lakeside's players and coaches, Birkholz is in the fold.
"There was about one day worth of thought and then I knew I was playing football," said Birkholz, who has committed to play at The Citadel. "I knew I would miss it too much. I know the Lord has me in his hands. He will keep me safe. If he doesn't, that's his plan."
"He loves his teammates and is the ultimate competitor," Bauer added of the 6-foot-3, 182-pound Birkholz. "He's out there competing and not worried about getting hurt. He's giving us everything he's got. He's fun to coach."
The L-Cats were left thinking what could have been.
"We had a good game plan going in," Lake Mills football coach Tyler Huber said. "We under appreciated how big they were up front and how much movement they could get against our defensive line and linebackers. Defending the triple option is about knowing your role and doing it well defensively.
"You have to be extremely disciplined. We did that at times. We did not do that at other times. There were a few things we could have done differently from front and linebacker perspective. We have to tackle better and play more physically. Birkholz and Bou ran it hard. We were tackling too high. We have to play better fundamentally sound football.
"Lakeside is well-coached and extremely physical up front. Every year, they have kids dialed in and playing good football at the right time."
Lake Mills (4-3, 2-3) opened the game with the football and punted after five plays with Levake pinning the Warriors at the six-yard line.
Lakeside architected a 12-play drive over 6:43, which included a 48-yard run by Bou to move it inside the five-yard line, to score the game's first points on a Birkholz two-yard keeper on fourth down.
After the teams traded punts, the fireworks began.
Thiede, who made five grabs totaling 102 yards, caught a 73-yard score on a wheel route from Belling to make it 7-7 with 5:09 to play before halftime.
The Warriors, who moved into plus territory on a 20-yard run by Birkholz, found paydirt when Birkholz slashed and weaved 38 yards for a score on the ensuing play out of a timeout.
Thiede showed off his speed on the ensuing kick return, sprinting down the sideline by getting shoved out by Birkholz, who had the angle, at the plus 26-yard line. Senior wideout Liam Carrigan -- on a screen -- scored untouched to give Lake Mills a 14-13 lead with 47 seconds left in the quarter.
Two plays from scrimmage later, Bou fumbled and Thiede pounced on the ball to give the L-Cats life at the Warrior 35-yard line. A quick hitter to junior wide receiver Matthew Stenbroten gained 16 yards and Levake then connected from 33 yards with a second remaining.
Lakeside's opening drive of the second half came up empty when junior defensive back Brody Henderson laid out for an interception at the L-Cat 27-yard line.
After a pair of penalties and a near miss on a deep ball, the L-Cats were forced to punt.
Lakeside proceeded to trek 65 yards on eight plays over 4:34 to take a 20-17 lead late in the third quarter on a Birkholz sneak of one yard.
"They made big plays, which was demoralizing," Birkholz said. "We came out and pounded the football and played our game. We didn't throw much tonight. We threw when we needed to, but pounding the football is how you are going to win high school football games. Lake Mills played a great game. They should be proud of themselves."
The quick-strike L-Cats punched back once more as senior tailback Ben Buchholtz, who had 12 carries for 131 yards, scampered 65 yards to the house, giving Lake Mills a 24-20 edge.
The Warriors -- buoyed by a Birkholz 21-yard gain on the last play of the third -- snatched the lead back on a third and 17 play. Birkholz connected with senior tight end Trey Lauber for a 31-yard score to give Lakeside a 27-24 lead with 6:09 left.
"I asked Levi on that last kickoff, 'I need a big one out of you,'" Bauer said. "Sure enough, he gets a touchback to make them start at the 20-yard line, so he came through on that too.
"Levi just battles through it. He's hurting obviously. There were numerous times with his elbow tonight, but he just shakes it off and keeps going. He's a warrior."
Lake Mills ran off nearly four minutes before settling for Levake's aforementioned tying field goal.
Lakeside moves into a second-place tie with Lodi, which fell 42-14 to league-leader Columbus on Friday. The Warriors face the Cardinals on the road next week and can move into a share for first with a victory.
"We have a lot of work to do," Birkholz said. "It feels great to become postseason eligible. We are in one of the best D4 conferences in the state. Every night is a battle. We are going to keep trying to get better."
Belling finished 14-for-20 for 230 yards for the L-Cats, who travel to face Turner next week.
"We just have to continue to consistently get better, embracing the process of each week and day," Huber said. "Keep on working and worry about ourselves. Our three losses happen to be conference losses against good teams. We are a good team as well but just haven’t put things together in those games.
"The kids are all about fighting and continuing to work. I know the kids will be working their hardest these next two weeks."
LAKESIDE LUTHERAN 30, LAKE MILLS 27
Lake Mills 0 17 7 3 -- 27
Lakeside Lutheran 7 6 7 10 -- 30
LL -- Birkholz 2 run (Birkholz kick)
LM -- Thiede 73 pass from Belling (Levake kick)
LL -- Birkholz 38 run (kick failed)
LM -- Carrigan 26 pass from Belling (Levake kick)
LM -- Levake 33 field goal
LL -- Birkholz 1 run (Birkholz kick)
LM -- Buchholtz 65 run (Levake kick)
LL -- Lauber 32 pass from Birkholz (Birkholz kick)
LM -- Levake 42 field goal
LL -- Birkholz 30 field goal
Total offense: LM 356, LL 394; Passing yards: LM 230, LL 54; Rushing attempts-yards: LM 14-126, LL 56-340; Penalties-yards: LM 9-80, LL 2-20; Fumbles-lost: LM 1-0, LL 1-1; Interceptions thrown: LM 0, LL 1; Time of possession: LM 15:47, LL 32:13; First downs: LM 11, LL 22; Third down conversions/attempts: LM 3-9, LL 6-11.
Passing (comp.-att.-yds-tds-int) -- LM: Belling 14-20-230-2-0; LL: Birkholz 4-6-54-1-1; Rushing attempts-yards -- LM: Buchholtz 12-131; LL: Birkholz 32-213, Bou 19-121; Receptions-yards -- LM: Thiede 5-102, Stenbroten 3-50, Rguig 3-36, Carrigan 1-26; LL: Lauber 2-42; Total tackles -- LM: Henderson 9.5, Murphy 8.5, Buchholtz 8, Belling 6, Stenbroten 6; LL: Buxa 6.5, Birkholz 6, Vergenz 4.5, S. Schmidt 4.5.