For a three-week stretch during the 2016 high-school football season, no player delivered a greater flash of lightning than South Milwaukee quarterback Jake Simuncak.
The 2016 All-Suburban Football Team selection ran for 308 yards and three scores (throwing another) in a 55-18 win over Brown Deer on Sept. 16, he delivered 418 yards rushing and four touchdowns in a 36-0 win over Cudahy, and he ran for 309 yards and five touchdowns in his team's most important win of the year, a 33-27 victory over Whitnall.
They were the Rockets' only wins of the year, but they were enough to earn South Milwaukee a ticket into the WIAA postseason with a 3-3 league record. More than that, they put Simuncak's name in the state record books.
The 418 yards was a state record for rushing yards by a Wisconsin quarterback in a single game, according to records kept by the WFCA. It was also a Woodland East single-game rushing record and a school record, and he tied a state record by achieving three straight 300-yard rushing games. Overall, he finished with 1,669 yards and 23 touchdowns, plus a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown. He did it all in eight games; a concussion robbed him of his season finale and playoff game. He also passed for 907 yards and seven touchdowns.
"It took us a while as a staff to kind of figure out how we wanted this thing to work," South Milwaukee coach Mike Bertok said. "We had a late transition to head coach from Derek Hoff to me; the end of June is when it was officially announced. It took us a couple games to figure out the system and have the kids become comfortable with it. Once the kids clicked, the light bulb went on for some of them. We could do some things on the ground that we weren't able to do to the first couple weeks. We had a number of penalties that could have been game changers; Jake's stats could have been substantially higher."
Standing at just 5 feet, 7 inches, the diminutive quarterback was named the Woodland East Player of the Year.
"In the first four games (of the season), we had a lot of underclassmen, kids who really didn't see the field as much coming into their junior year," Simuncak said. "There just was not a lot of team chemistry, and we weren't clicking. We had miscommunications and were blaming each other for mistakes. And then, we started clicking. ... I had a pretty good game against Brown Deer and we started winning, and kids got past (the slow start)."
Bertok implemented an offensive system put together by former Oak Creek and Greenfield coach Joe Koch, who had success at a number of stops in Wisconsin, and even brought over Greenfield running backs coach Al Wright to his staff to make the transition at South Milwaukee from a spread offense.
"The offense is based off a very simple play that we just ran into the ground," Bertok said. "We would run it until they stopped it; that was really the game plan. If a passing opportunity opened up, we would take advantage of it. But we were trying to attack the ground."
Bertok likened Simuncak's abilities to another renown runner who didn't need substantial height to make a difference.
"I don’t really want to make this comparison, but I’m going to; he’s very Barry Sanders-like," Bertok said. "He’s small and he’s close to the ground, makes cuts that bigger people can’t do. He's very strong for his size. To compare it to a current player, he's like a Darren Sproles, thick for his size, strong and shifty. It's especially hard with the system we’re running (to stop him), with 11 bodies in the box and he could kind of hide behind them. It really helped him become an efficient runner in our system. He's one of the quickest players I’ve coached, he’s a really good athlete, size really didn’t play a factor into it."
Simuncak admitted there was some extra satisfaction to the win over rival Cudahy, a school where numerous members of his family have attended. That included his father, Dennis, who holds the state-title game record for longest interception return when he ran back a pick-six for 101 yards with Cudahy in 1982 against Antigo. It's a record that could obviously stand forever – second place is just 53 yards.
"It'a all I would hear about from him, how he had a state record," Jake said. "Now, we actually have two. It's kind of cool to brag around the house a little bit."
Simuncak said the run of success was a surprising adventure.
"I would show up at school, and kids I didn't normally talk to would say, 'Hey, what's up Jake?' " he said with a laugh. "I had a little fame for a couple weeks. It was super tough seeing them play (without me in the playoffs). It kind of felt like it was my fault for those losses."
Simuncak's season came to an end was injured against New Berlin West in a Woodland Crossover game that ended in a close 32-26 loss.
"That would have been the only crossover game between East and West division that would have been won by the East," Bertok said. "It was unfortunate that we didn't get a couple more Ws, but the reality is the team grew and the coaching staff grew a lot more than the record shows. It's an exciting time and exciting to have a full offseason with these guys."
That won't include Simuncak, now playing his senior year of basketball at South Milwaukee. He's involved in five sports total at South Milwaukee, including powerlifting, track and summer baseball. He's looking to play football somewhere in college, perhaps as a slot receiver or kick returner. Perhaps his future will be in the defensive backfield – he began his junior year at safety before shifting to the quarterback role.
"The door is open for everything," he said.