Through the first six weeks of the season, Wauwatosa West's football team had struggled to find its way and were on the brink of playoff elimination.
But after an impressive 39-10 win over Woodland West division champion and previously unbeaten Pewaukee, the Trojans are in good shape to make the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
"We became a team," Wauwatosa West coach Matt Good said. "I don't know why that happened. It has been a seven-week work in progress. It finally clicked for our guys. I thought our effort was much better overall than it had been.
"We continued to grind, improve and work in practice. We were finally able to put it all together."
Wauwatosa West took the lead on a 73-yard touchdown run by Ean Haller with 3:35 left in the first quarter. The extra point was no good, leaving the score at 6-0.
"We were going into the wind and debated whether we wanted to take a shot," Good said. "We decided to go for it. We had our bust route-running receiver Ernie LaSpisa run a great route, and he made a huge catch. Jamil made a great throw. It was probably his best throw of the season."
Pewaukee, which entered ranked No. 5 in the Division 3 coaches' poll, had an immediate answer, as David Young returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown to put the Pirates up, 7-6.
"The kickoff return was pretty disappointing because we practiced that all week," Good said. "We didn't execute that very well."
Just before halftime, Trojan quarterback Jamil Razza hit Ernie LaSpisa for a 51-yard score with 16 seconds on the clock.
Wauwatosa West tried to squib the kickoff, but a Pirate player picked up the ball and ran with it. After a long pass down the middle, David Collins drilled a 27-yard field goal as the half expired to cut the Trojans' lead to 13-10.
The Trojans pulled away in the second half with 21 unanswered points.
Razza scored on an 8-yard run with 4:29 left in the third quarter, while Paris Howell rattled off touchdown runs of 62 and 42 yards in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
Howell finished with 178 yards on 17 carries and has run for 893 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season.
"He's our best running back," Good said of Howell. "Big players have to make big plays in big moments. He was able to do that for us."
Wauwatosa West's defense allowed just the three points Pewaukee got just before halftime.
The Trojans intercepted Pirate quarterback Josh Swanson twice and scored late in the fourth quarter on a fumble return for a touchdown by LaSpisa.
"Our defense has played well in a lot of games," Good said. "We've turned the ball over and have given up yards on special teams to put them in bad spots. Last night, they were able to create turnovers, which is something we've been missing. It was really good to see.
"Pewaukee has a fairly simple offense in terms of what they do. They are going to come at you. Our kids felt good about what they saw on tape and executed well."
The win puts Wauwatosa West in a good spot in terms of playoff qualification.
Because of their loss to New Berlin West on Sept. 23, the Trojans will be seeded fifth for crossover purposes even though they tied the Vikings for fourth at 2-3 in the Woodland West.
Wauwatosa West will host winless Brown Deer (0-7, 0-5) in a crossover game with no postseason implications on Oct. 7. The Trojans then must win on the road at Cudahy (2-5, 1-4) on Oct. 14 to become playoff eligible.
"As we told the kids last night, now they know how to play," Good said. "They know how to play with passion and effort. Now there's no looking back. We have to keep getting better, keep working hard and use this as a springboard."