For 2014 All-Gazette player of the year, it was Milton or nothing
Four games into the 2013 high school football season, Milton coach Bill O'Leary and his staff decided to give Avery Ousterhout a shot on defense.
Already a formidible force up front on offense, the junior had played both ways growing up and was ready to give it a shot at the next level.
Midway through the first quarter, on his second defensive play, Ousterhout broke through for a sack.
A two-way star was born.
This season, a similar play in the Red Hawks' Badger South Conference opener against Madison Edgewood spearheaded his senior year.
“It was the second play, and for some reason the tight end didn't set up to block me,” Ousterhout said. “It was a boot pass, and I read it right away. I had an open shot at Edgewood's quarterback.
“I just never really looked back from there.”
Milton rarely did, either. The Red Hawks won five straight games, capped the regular season with a victory at Monona Grove that secured a share of the Badger South title and won their third playoff game since 1996.
It was a dream finish for Ousterhout, who bleeds Milton red. A first-team all-conference player on both sides of the ball and the Badger South lineman of the year, Ousterhout is The Gazette's inaugural area player of the year.
Avery Ousterhout was born to play for Milton.
When Ousterhout was 9 years old, his parents—Angela Mathews and J Ousterhout—divorced. In the coming years, they'd move from the Rock County city of less than 6,000. J Ousterhout headed to southern Janesville; Mathews eventually moved to Rockford, Illinois.
As Avery describes it, an ultimatum was given.
“I told them if I moved, I would just give up sports,” he said. “There's no other team I would play for.”
As Mathews tells it, there was never a doubt Avery was destined for Milton High.
“I was born and raised there, so to me it was never a question,” said Mathews, who didn't move until Avery's freshman year. “It might have entered Avery's mind, but it wasn't that dramatic.”
Ousterhout split time evenly between parents. The times he was with mom in Rockford, she would drop him off on her commute to work in Madison. The times he was in Janesville, J would make the trek to drop him off.
He open-enrolled when he got to high school, though J moved back to Milton when Avery was a sophomore, negating that issue.
“I just loved the organization, the community, the football program,” he said. “This community is so supportive of everything we do. The kids I played with growing up, we always said we could do something special. I didn't want to not be a part of that.”
Mathews remembers her son growing up more of a sports nerd than a jock.
“I didn't know if he would be a kid to play the sports,” she said of Ousterhout. “He'd follow the teams and knew statistics on players from every team to basketball to baseball to football. You could just mention a player and he'd tell you how many yards they had, what team they played for, what college they went to.”
The stats he'll pass onto those who ask about his dynamic senior season include:
—Nine sacks, 79 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a fumble recovery on defense.
“I prefer defense,” Ousterhout said. “Coach (Lance) Knudsen is going to kill me for saying that. … There are too many penalties you can get on offense; I don't like that. Defense gives you a rush to go one-on-one with a quarterback.”
—Zero sacks allowed on offense in the pivotal game against Monona Grove, and have helped pave the way for 1,739 team rushing yards.
“When we were going to the run the ball, we were going to run on his side,” O'Leary said. “He's a dominant, dominant lineman. There are times when the whistle blows and he's still driving his man downfield.”
—One conference title—Milton's first in six years.
“It meant a ton,” Ousterhout said. “We did something that no one really expected us to do. We came in with the title of dark horse in the conference, because no one really knew what we could do. We were the only ones that knew.”
Ousterhout has an offer on the table to play Division II football and has garnered interest from Football Championship Subdivision teams, as well.
Regardless of the route he takes, it's a safe bet you'll never see him injure himself on an exuberant sack dance—which has happened more than once in the NFL this season.
“I might give a high-five to my teammates, but I just get back at it again,” Ousterhout said. “I respect everybody that wants to play the game, because I know what it takes to be in that situation. At the same time, I won't back down to anybody.
“I would say I'm confident playing with my pads on. When you give me those pressure situations, I know that I'll perform and nobody will be able to block me if we need a big play.”
He'll leave behind big shoes to fill up front for the Red Hawks on both sides of the ball.
But Ousterhout will almost certainly miss Milton as much as it misses him.
The two were destined for each other.