Rhinelander’s Peyton Erikson, left, and Quinn Lamers bump shoulder pads ahead of a non-conference football game at Tomahawk Thursday, Aug. 29. The Hodags, riding high off a 2-0 start, will play their first game on the new artificial turf at Mike Webster Stadium Friday night when 2-0 Lakeland comes to town for the fifth playing of the Northwoods Axe Game. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Lakeland quarterback Michael Ouimette carries the ball during a football game at Cudahy Friday, Aug. 23. Ouimette was the Great Northern Conference’s top-rated passer in 2018 and the Hodags will attempt to slow down the dual-threat quarterback Friday. (Brett LaBore/Lakeland Times)
9/5/2019 7:30:00 AM The tip of the Axe Trophy game just the start of big Week 3 showdown between Hodags and T-Birds
A new season has brought hope and optimism for two teams looking to get on track in the Great Northern Conference. One of them will be 3-0 by the end of Friday night.
Unbeaten teams will square off as the Rhinelander Hodags host the Lakeland T-Birds in the fifth playing of the Northwoods Axe Game at Mike Webster Stadium. Both teams are looking to end long playoff droughts and after winning back-to-back non-conference games to open the season, the winner of Friday night's game will have a leg up in the postseason chase.
Rhinelander has dominated its opponents, with a 21-0 victory at Prescott followed by a 48-6 shellacking of Tomahawk, for its first 2-0 start since 2016. Lakeland, meanwhile, needed double overtime to get by Cudahy 35-33 in the opener and a late touchdown to eke past Northland Pines 32-27 last week. The T-Birds, close a couple of times, haven't visited the postseason since 2009. Rhinelander's last postseason trip was in 2012.
"I told the kids after last week you never want to look ahead, but here's the deal, you win your home games, you can complete a lot of the tasks and goals you said you wanted to do at the beginning of the year," Rhinelander head coach Aaron Kraemer said. "It's starts now with Lakeland."
Friday night's game already had a lot of layers to it. It will be the first varsity football contest on the new artificial turf at Mike Webster Stadium. It's also the fifth playing of the Northwoods Axe Game, a series Lakeland leads 3-1. That both teams come in after strong starts only adds to the importance of the game.
While non-conference wins are nice, conference wins are what get a team into the playoffs. In the Great Northern Conference, teams need to go 3-3 to be playoff eligible and 4-2 to ensure a playoff bid. Given that preseason conference favorites Mosinee and Medford already have wins against teams that made it to at least the state semifinals last year - Mosinee edged defending D6 champ Iola-Scandinavia 37-34 last week on a last-second field goal while Medford blanked D3 semifinalist Rice Lake 14-0 in its opener - a win Friday may go a long way toward bolstering either team's postseason chances.
Some other storylines to watch heading into tomorrow night's game.
Friday night's contest is the official grand opening of the new surface at Mike Webster Stadium. Completed late last week, the turf has hosted a couple of soccer games ahead of tonight's main event.
The event will also be the full debut of an updated concessions and restroom area as part of a long-term investment - both through public and private monies - of Rhinelander's athletic facilities.
"As far as the first game on there, the kids are excited, but it's another distraction," Kraemer said. "We talk about distraction and the things we have to weather - not that it's a bad distraction, we're so happy that we're playing on the turf - but it's something the kids are going to have to know that's there.
"We're just happy that the community gets to be here. The kids are excited, but we've got to remember we can't turn our pride into hubris. It's got to be controlled. We're very proud of our town and our facilities and we want to represent everyone who's sitting out in the stands with a good performance."
It's the fifth time Lakeland and Rhinelander have battled for the Axe and, though Lakeland holds a 3-1 lead in the series each game has been exciting. Three of the four previous meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less. The one "blowout" in the series was Rhinelander's 49-34 win over the T-Birds to end the 2017 season.
"I expect nothing different (Friday)," Kraemer said. "I told the kids they're going to have to make sure they're in it. They're going to get a chance to win the game - whether it's in the first quarter, second quarter, whatever - we're going to have a chance for a big play and a chance to win it."
The trophy has only added to the rivalry between the two Oneida County schools. Lakeland has won seven of the 10 meetings between the squads since the series renewed in 2005. The series may not have the history of Rhinelander-Antigo, but it's equally important in the team's eyes.
"There are kids in the locker room and parents in the stands, and coaches on our staff that this is the game," Kraemer said. "It's not the Bell Game. This is the game they really want to win. Not that the Bell Game isn't important - because it certainly is - but there are people out there where this is the one we need to win."
For Rhinelander to have success, it will need to contain Lakeland's dual-threat quarterback Michael Ouimette.
In a Week 1 overtime win at Cudahy, Ouimette passed for 221 yards, rushed for 116 more and had five total touchdowns. Ouimette tacked on two more touchdowns on the ground, including the game-winner, against Northland Pines last week.
Kraemer said Ouimette and Lakeland's air raid offense pose a significantly different challenge than what Prescott and Tomahawk brought the first two weeks of the season.
"Michael is someone, when I see him play, he's got great vision - not only reading his progressions, but also in the run game," Kraemer said. "He's patient with how he runs the football. He's a larger player, so he's more difficult to tackle than some of the other guys we've played this year. He's a smart player. He's smart with his body. He knows how to use it.
"Lakeland offers us a different challenge throwing the football, for sure. We have not seen a team that throws the ball as often and as well as Lakeland so far this year. It's something we're preparing for."
Zach Hayes recorded a couple of touchdowns in last week's win against Northland Pines and is Lakeland's second rushing option. With first-team all-Great Northern Conference receiviers Jacob Rexroade and Ray Rentmeester graduated, senior Chase Hunt has come to the forefront of the offense. Hunt, who transferred from Rhinelander to Lakeland as a sophomore, had 11 catches for 138 yards and two scores at Cudahy and came up with a key interception with Northland Pines driving late in last week's contest.
"When you play them, it's slowing them down and taking away the big play," Kraemer said. "It's taking away the screen, taking away the deep pass. That's what makes them left-handed. They want to make big plays. This team is opportunistic and they want to take advantage of the opportunities that they have."
One way to keep Lakeland from scoring is to keep the ball out of Ouimette's hands. That means controlling the game, and the time of possession on offense against a Lakeland defense that has been suspect on the other side of the ball. So far, in two games, Lakeland has allowed 401 yards of offense and 33 points to Cudahy and 307 yards of offense and 27 points to Northland Pines.
Lakeland allowed Northland Pines Ryan Peterson to rack up 232 yards (152 rushing, 80 receiving) and three touchdowns on 17 touches last week. In the opener, Cudahy's Bryce Barbian threw for 263 yards and three scores against the T-Bird defense.
"They're big in the middle and have some pretty good defensive backs that can slow us down, too. I think the opportunities are there for us," Kraemer said. "We need to keep spreading the ball around and make sure our kids are fresh for the fourth quarter, because they'll need to be. That's going to be the difference, the freshness of our players."
In addition to everything else going on Friday night, the RHS football program is celebrating youth night at Mike Webster Stadium.
Kids 12 and under will get into Friday night's game free of charge and the team is encouraging those in the YMCA/RHS Youth Flag Football League, the Rhinelander Youth Football Program and the James Williams Middle School football team to come out and support the Hodags. Players from those teams will have the opportunity to stand on the field with the varsity squad during the national anthem.
Additionally, the YMCA/RHS Flag Football League will play on the field during halftime of Friday's game.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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