In this Oct. 7, 2017 file photo, Rhinelander’s Alec Kurtz raises the football after recovering a fumble during the first quarter of a Great Northern Conference football game against Ashland at Weikal Field. Rhinelander snapped a 23-game conference losing streak last week and will close the regular season against Lakeland this Friday. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
At A Glance
WHAT: Lakeland at Rhinelander
WHEN: 7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 13
WHERE:M Mike Webster Stadium, Rhinelander High School
WEATHER: Showers likely, 54 degrees, North winds at 5 MPH.
RECORDS: Lakeland 2-6 (1-4 Great Northern), Rhinelander 2-6 (1-4 Great Northern)
LAST MEETING: Lakeland 20, Rhinelander 14 - Sept. 16, 2016
WHAT'S AT STAKE: The Northwoods Axe. It's the third time that the schools have played for the Axe, a trophy trade idea created by the schools in conjuction with The Lakeland Times and The Northwoods River News. Lakeland has won each of the first two Axe Games after Rhinelander turned the ball over deep in Lakeland territory driving for a potential game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter of both contests. Also at stake is avoiding the Great Northern Conference basement. The loser of this game will be relegated to sole possession of last place in the GNC.
NOTEABLE: Since the two teams renewed their rivalry in 2005, Lakeland is 10-3 in the series ... Rhinelander - which snapped a 23-game GNC losing streak last week - is looking for back-to-back wins in the conference for the first time since 2012, when it beat Ashland and Lakeland in succession.
10/12/2017 7:31:00 AM The Axe Game cometh After snapping GNC streak, Hodags look to close the season on high note vs. Lakeland
Two teams with identical 2-6 records, but heading in opposite directions, will meet Friday night when the Rhinelander Hodags host the Lakeland Thunderbirds in the 2017 prep football finale for both teams at Mike Webster Stadium in Rhinelander.
Earlier in the season, Lakeland seemed destined to contend for a playoff spot, especially after upsetting Medford at home. Rhinelander, meanwhile, was going nowhere fast in the midst of a four-year conference losing streak.
The script has flipped, however, over the last two weeks following contests for both teams against Ashland. Lakeland saw a last-second Hail Mary fall incomplete two weeks ago when it fell to the Oredockers 46-40 in Minocqua, ending the T-Birds playoff hopes. That was followed by a 55-6 shellacking by Marquette, Mich. at Northern Michigan University's Superior Dome with 10 T-Bird starters out of the lineup due to injury.
Meanwhile, thanks to a three-touchdown night from Drake Martin and a goal line stand in the final minute, Rhinelander knocked off Ashland 20-12 last week, ending a 23-game GNC slide and giving the Hodags a much-needed shot in the arm heading into the finale.
"Our kids responded well to the ups and downs of the game," Rhinelander coach Chris Ferge said. "Still looking to get more of those plays that we should have had, looking at some of the breakdowns, but our guys are ready to go and we're excited to play Lakeland this week."
The Hodags played far from a perfect game last week, but performed just well enough to get a long-awaited victory.
"A win's a win, it doesn't really matter," Ferge said. "The fact is they hung tough and made it happen. That's all that really matters."
Rhinelander hopes to use that momentum Friday as it plays Lakeland for the Northwoods Axe for the third time. The first two playings have come down to the wire with the T-Birds winning both times - 20-16 in 2015 and 20-14 last year.
"I expect a close game, no matter what. Rivalry games just have a way of (producting close finishes)," Ferge said. "It doesn't matter what the talent really is. Everybody wants to win so badly. Both teams will probably have a great week of practice and a great plan coming in. We'll see who can make the adjustments and who can make those plays on third down and fourth down to win the game."
Ferge is also expecting a healthier team than what Lakeland's put on the field the last couple of weeks. That includes seeing senior Tyler Carroll, arguably the T-Birds most dynamic player. He missed last week's game at Marquette with a knee injury, though The Lakeland Times reports the senior intends to play this week.
If that's the case, Carroll will be a threat on both sides of the ball. He has been Lakeland's primary quarterback since sophomore Michael Ouimette suffered a season-ending knee injury prior to the T-Birds' Week 5 game against Mosinee. Since then, he's completed 63 percent of his passes (36 of 57) for 569 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions. He's also rushed for 298 yards and three scores, and caught three passes for 53 yards.
"He's just a dynamic athlete and they won't play him the entire game at quarterback," Ferge said, noting that Lakeland has some packages in which junior Austin Wanty takes the snaps. "I expect him to play other positions. We've seen them (on film) week after week after week. They've been very creative where they put him. He's definitely someone they're looking to get the ball to."
Carroll is also dangerous on defense. He intercepted Rhinelander quarterback Logan Freund four times in last year's contest - including a pick at the Lakeland 5 with 42 seconds remaining that preserved Lakeland's six-point victory.
"We might challenge him. We might go away from him," Ferge said, not tipping the team's hand in the passing game. "We have to be able to do everything or else they are just going to put different guys on the other side and take away some of the things we want to do."
Something Rhinelander will certainly want to do against Lakeland is run the ball. The T-Birds have been shredded on the ground this year to the tune of more than 315 yards per game. Running backs have averaged nearly seven yards per carry against Lakeland over the last six weeks and the T-Birds have allowed six 100-yard rushers in that span.
That all bodes well for sophomore Drake Martin, who enters the game 88 yards shy of the 1,000-yard plateau for the season.
"We need to run the ball and stop the run," Ferge said. "That's the first thing we have to be able to do as a team. Then we'll see what we can do through the air."
The natural rivalry and trophy game aside, the Hodags will be looking to send their large senior class out in style with a win - that's something Rhinelander hasn't done since 2010 when the Hodags shutout Ashland 17-0 in what was then a non-conference game to end the regular season.
"They're they heartbeat of our team, without a doubt," Ferge said. "Great leadership. They've but a lot of great work in. We want them to have the best experience possible this week. We want them to have a game they will always remember. They're excited to play this game and our other guys are ready to back them up."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
The Northwoods River News | Walker Communications, LLC 232 S. Courtney Street, Rhinelander, WI 54501 | Office (715) 365-6397 | Fax (715) 365-6361
Corporate billing office: The Lakeland Times / Lakeland Printing Inc. | P.O. Box 790, Minocqua, WI 54548 | (715) 356-5236 | Fax (715) 358-2121 Members of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Community Papers, Rhinelander Area Chamber of Commerce, Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce