Rhinelander HIgh School foootball players, including Drake Martin (28), Payton Johnson, Nathan Kempf (19), Travis Towne (89) and Tyler Olson (69) celebrate with the Northwoods Axe Trophy following a 25-7 win over Lakeland at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Sept. 6. The Hodags moved to 3-0 on the season with the victory. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Drake Martin scores a touchdown during the fourth quarter of a Great Northern Conference football game against at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Sept. 6. Martin rushed for 235 yards and three scores in the Hodags’ win.
9/10/2019 7:30:00 AM AXE-CELLENCE Hodags down Lakeland 25-7 in Axe Game, move to 3-0
Faced with real adversity for the first time all season, the Rhinelander High School football team delivered yet another early season statement Friday night at Mike Webster Stadium.
Drake Martin rushed for 235 yards and three touchdowns - including two in the final quarter - to help the Hodags pull away to a 25-7 win over Lakeland in the Northwoods Axe Game.
In victory, Rhinelander won the first game on its new artificial turf surface, took back the Axe for the second time in the last three years and improved to 3-0 for the first time in decades.
New head coach Aaron Kraemer talked all preseason about the need to win the fourth quarter in order to be successful. Not only did Rhinelander outscore Lakeland 13-0 in the final stanza, it outgained the T-Birds 144 yards to 50 and put an exclamation point on a win in their Great Northern Conference opener.
"We've talked about adversity a lot and how you respond to the negative in your life and how you can turn it around," Kraemer said. "Our guys did exactly that in the fourth quarter, exactly like we wanted to do.
"I was proud of the way we finished. If we continue to do that, I'll tell you, things are turning around," Kraemer added.
Up 12-7, the Hodags got the ball back 20 seconds into the fourth quarter after forcing a Lakeland 3 and out. Peyton Erikson returned a punt to the T-Bird 34, setting up Rhinelander in excellent field position. Martin converted a key fourth-and-3 play with a six-yard run, and a few plays later, he plunged in from a yard out to make it 19-7.
Lakeland drove down to the Rhinelander 12 on its next drive following a defensive pass interference penalty but quarterback Michael Ouimette and running back Devon Tessmer were stopped on back-to-back running plays on third and fourth and short to give Rhinelander the ball back with 6:19 remaining.
"Blockers came down, I got a free shot at them and I didn't hesitate, I just ran him over," said defensive lineman Trevor Knapp, who came up with the key stop against Tessmer on fourth and 2. "Just a lot of emotion going through there, I was able to make a play and its (basically) the end of the game right there."
Two plays later, Martin broke off his longest run of the night - a 70-yarder down the Lakeland 7. He scored two plays after that to put an exclamation point on the victory.
"This is awesome," said Martin, who added 52 yards on three receptions. "We've never had a start like this in my high school career. We've just been playing amazing. This has been a great experience. This is awesome."
Lakeland won the toss and elected to receive, but went nowhere on its opening drive, going 3 and out. Rhinelander got the ball at its own 15, but quickly moved into Lakeland territory on a 36-yard pass from quarterback Quinn Lamers to Martin, followed by a 25-yard run by Martin to the Lakeland 24. The Hodags punched it in three plays later on an Erikson 14-yard run to go up 6-0. The score remained that way until late in the first half as Martin scored from 11 yards out with 32 seconds remaining to give Rhinelander a 12-0 lead at the break.
The Hodags were looking for more, as they started the second half with the ball, but Lakeland's Zach Hayes intercepted a Lamers pass at the T-Bird 21. From there Lakeland went on its longest drive of the night, an 11-play, 79-yard march capped off by a Ouimette four-yard run to make it 12-7 with 7:41 remaining in the third.
Rhinelander's ground game helped to keep Lakeland's air raid offense on the sideline. The Hodags rushed for 350 yards as a team, had 436 yards of total offense and held on to the football for nearly 29 of the games 48 minutes.
"The whole line was pancaking," Martin said of the blocking effort in the ground game. "I was just cutting off of them. It was so awesome. We had a great game, everybody. Receivers were blocking well. We were doing our fakes well. It was just a great game."
Lakeland's offense, led by Ouimette, came in averaging 33.5 points and 350 yards through its first two games. Rhinelander limited the T-Birds to seven points and 235 yards with a stifling effort.
Part of the game plan was to keep Ouimette off the field, which the Hodag offense accomplished. Another part of the game plan was to keep Ouimette from beating the Hodags with his arm, or his legs, when he got outside the pocket. Ouimette finished the night 15 of 29 passing for 159 yards and threw a pair of first-half interceptions. He added 59 yards rushing on 23 carries.
"The game plan this week was to make sure he stayed in the pocket and I think we did a pretty good job of that," Kraemer said. "Our middle linebackers chased him all night. Our safeties and corners did an excellent job of keeping the guys from going deep."
Through three games Rhinelander's defense, led by coordinator Gary Zarda, has allowed only 13 points and less than 600 yards of total offense.
"Our defense, with only allowing what we've allowed the first three games - yards and points - unbelievable. He's doing a great job and the guys on the defensive side of the ball are doing a great job," Kraemer said.
Rhinelander had opportunities to put Lakeland away earlier, but misfired on several chances inside T-Bird territory.
Following an opening touchdown, Rhinelander's next three possessions got inside the Lakeland 35 but all ended on downs. After Lakeland cut the lead to 12-7 in the third quarter, Rhinelander drove down to the Lakeland 12, where it was stopped short on a Walker Hartman carry on fourth and 5.
Kraemer, who calls the offensive plays, took responsibility for the struggles in T-Birds territory with play selection that put Rhinelander in disadvantageous down-and-distance scenarios, but credited his team for scoring when it mattered.
"I wasn't worried about the first quarter when I saw the way they finished in the fourth quarter," he said.
School District of Rhinelander administration held a ceremony to celebrate the new turf field, part of broader district-wide athletic facility upgrades which will include an air-supported dome for practice and game use that is scheduled to be ready by August 2020.
Activities director Brian Paulson spoke pregame with superintendent Kelli Jacobi and members of the Rhinelander school board also on the field.
"The amount of people that were here tonight to christen this space for us and Hodag football, and the experience we've just had is unlike any other I've had as a coach, bar none," Kraemer said. "There we're so many people here to cheer us on and I'm so happy to be part of this community, and this program to be part of what's changing around our school."
During the second half Rhinelander had a number of players leave the game with cramps, which Kraemer said was in part due to getting acclimated to the new surface.
"It's just a little bit different," he said. "I don't think it had anything to do with our condition. Guys were still ready to go. They played well after their cramps. I think it just had to do with the field and us getting our bearings."
Rhinelander outgained Lakeland 436-235 in the contest. Lamers was 4-of-10 passing for 86 yards for the Hodags with an interception. Martin caught three of those passes. The other completion was a 34-yarder to tight end Connor Lund that helped set up Rhinelander's scoring drive before the end of the first half. Hartman had 49 yards rushing for Rhinelander while Erikson chipped in 35 yards.
Chase Hunt, who transferred from Rhinelander to Lakeland as a sophomore, led the T-Birds with eight receptions for 51 yards while Hayes caught four passes for 76 yards.
Lakeland is now 3-2 in the rivalry with Rhinelander since the Northwoods Axe was established in 2015. Friday's 18-point margin of victory by Rhinelander was the widest by either team in the Axe Game series.
The Hodags will take on Wausau East in a surprise battle of 3-0 teams this coming Friday at Mike Webster Stadium. The Lumberjacks, playing an independent schedule that includes a number of Great Northern Conference squads, improved to 3-0 with a 45-44 overtime win over preseason GNC favorite Mosinee on Friday.
Rhinelander lost 13-12 to the Lumberjacks in a turnover-plagued game last August at Thom Field.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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