The Rhinelander High School football team tackles Ashland’s Zach Coffland (10) short of the goal line on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard-line late in the fourth quarter of a football game at Weikal Field in Ashland Friday, Oct. 6. The stand preserved a 20-12 victory for the Hodags, their first in Great Northern Conference play since they defeated Ashland Oct. 11, 2013. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
YOU MAKE THE CALL — Rhinelander’s Drake Martin is hit by Ashland’s Ethan Graff as he heads for the end zone during the fourth quarter of a Great Northern Conference football game against Ashland at Weikal Field Friday, Oct. 6. Amid some confusion, the official eventually ruled the play as a touchdown for Martin. Ashland claimed the ball was fumbled and, as the officials were sorting the play out, Ethan Brown (7) ran the ball 101 yards for what the Oredockers believed was a return touchdown.
10/10/2017 7:30:00 AM Stopping the streak Hodags snap 23-game GNC skid on late goal line stand
ASHLAND - Faced with the prospect of watching its streak of futility in the Great Northern Conference continue, the Rhinelander High School football team's defense said "not this time" and made a pivotal stand.
The Hodags did not have to say it just once, but three times, and when they did Rhinelander's 23-game GNC losing streak was finally over.
Rhinelander denied Ashland twice from the one-yard line in the final minute, a rousing goal line stand it used to defeat the Oredockers 20-12 at Weikal Field in Ashland.
"We just believed in our guys the whole way," said senior Colton Krueger who helped turn the Oredockers away. "We were not letting that happen. We were not letting them get in after everything we put into this game."
Fireworks filled the sky afterward. They were meant to celebrate a homecoming win for the Oredockers and Ashland's first playoff berth since 2009. Instead they served as a metaphor for the emotional release for the Hodag players who, at least for one night, said goodbye to four years of frustration.
"I'm more excited for the kids," said Hodag coach Chris Ferge, who witnessed 22 of those 23 straight conference losses. "They deserve it. They work their butts off. They do what we ask them to do every week. They didn't flinch this week."
Drake Martin scored three touchdowns for Rhinelander, including the go-ahead score on a 10-yard shovel pass from Logan Freund in the third quarter and an eight-yard run in the fourth.
After the teams traded three-and-outs, Ashland got the ball back at its own 20 with 3:50 remaining and went deep into the bag of the tricks to march down into scoring range. Running back Zach Coffland hit quarterback Jordan Brennan on a throwback pass to help the Oredockers convert a third-and-15 deep in their own territory. Two plays later, Ethan Graff caught a tipped ball to get Ashland to the Hodag 39. Brennan then completed a pass to Zach Lindenberg on third-and-five to get Ashland down to the nine.
Coffland rushed to the 4 on first down. Schelvan made it down to the 1 on second down. They fed the fullback again on third-and-goal and he was denied the end zone.
Ashland spent its final timeout with 33 seconds left, in front of the key fourth down. Coffland, the team's leading rusher on the season, got the carry but did not cross the plane.
"That's who I'd give it to," said Ferge, who calls the shots for the Hodag defense. "This game's very simple. You can make it complicated, but it isn't. It's simple. It's one of their best players and they're going to give the ball to their best player. They stayed with their fullback who's a great player. Our guys keyed on him and it went our way."
"We just knew we were going to get the stop and we were just more determined," linebacker Cole Spaulding said. "We stepped up, made the plays we needed to make and did a good job in that last stand."
The Hodags still had to get the ball out of the shadow of their own goal post to run out the clock. Ashland obliged with an offsides call - its 11th penalty of the night - to give Rhinelander the space it needed to assemble in a long-awaited victory formation.
"So much hard work just paying off right here and the emotion's just incredible, to finally get the goal we've been seeking for so many years," Krueger said. "This is a night we're going to enjoy."
The fourth quarter literally boiled down to a game of inches for both teams. Ashland thought it had stripped Martin at the goal line, and Ethan Brown ran the other way for what he thought was a go-ahead fumble return for the Oredockers. Both line judges - albeit after a delay - eventually put their arms in the air, signifying a Hodag score. Photographs of the play appear to show Ashland's Ethan Graff jarring the ball out of Martin's grasp before the goal line.
The Hodags kept that drive alive on a sandlot fourth-down play from the Ashland 41 when Freund picked up a low snap and threw a desperation pass to Peyton Erickson who caught it and ran into the end zone. The touchdown was nullified due to a holding call downfield, but the play was still good enough to move the chains.
Freund pulled another Houdini act on Rhinelander's go-ahead score in the third quarter when he escaped two sack attempts before scrambling right and finding an open Martin in the flat.
"We did what we could do," Freund said with a shrug. "This is literally the greatest feeling to get that in the end zone for Drake and score."
After holding Ashland to a three-and-out on its opening drive, the Hodags drove 86 yards on 11 plays, ending with a five-yard score by Martin.
Ashland fumbled on the ensuing possession and the Hodags drove back down into the red zone before Freund was picked off on a pass into the end zone for Sam Tjugum.
Ashland capitalized from there, converting on fourth-and-1 from its own 29 on the first play of the second quarter before Brennan got free for a 67-yard run touchdown run down the right sideline.
Ashland scored again before the half, marching down the field 90 yards on 11 plays, capped off by a Schelvan run from three yards out with 31 seconds remaining before the break.
"We had a couple of huge breakdowns where they got some big yards but, besides that, I thought we were very solid tonight, tackled very well, knew our assignments," Ferge said.
Early in the second half, Ashland made its own goal line stand defending Weikal Field's south end zone. Martin was denied on third-and-goal from the 1 on the Hodags' first possession of the third quarter. Freund was then intercepted by Brown trying to find Spaudling on a play-action pass on fourth-and-goal.
Plays like that have had a tendency to demoralize the Hodags during their four-year conference skid, but not on this night.
"It was just the next play," Ferge said. "No one thought what if. That's something I've always wanted from my team. They showed that tonight. They showed grit. They did not worry about the things that didn't happen. They worried about the next play. That's why they were successful."
Martin rushed for 138 yards on 31 carries for the Hodags. He will enter this Friday's season finale needing only 88 yards to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Freund was 7 of 18 through the air for 101 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He added 37 yards rushing on 10 carries. Erickson finished with the catches for 36 yards.
Brennan rushed for 97 yards, and was 4 of 10 passing for 55 yards for the Oredockers. Coffland added 67 yards on 11 carries. He and Schelvan were limited to 137 yards on the ground, a far cry from the 330 they put up in a 46-40 win over Lakeland the week prior.
Ashland (3-5, 2-3 Great Northern) still has a chance to qualify for the WIAA playoffs, but must defeat Medford (2-6, 2-3 Great Northern) in a de facto play-in game next Friday at Raider Field. The Hodags (2-6, 1-4 Great Northern) will close the season against Lakeland in the third playing of the Northwoods Axe Game at Mike Webster Stadium. The T-Birds (2-6, 1-4 Great Northern) come in off a 55-6 loss at Marquette, Mich.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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