Rhinelander’s Trevor Knapp raises the football in celebration after making a tackle during the second quarter of a football game against Lakeland at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Sept. 6. The Hodags will put their first 3-0 record since 1974 on the line Friday night as they welcome Wausau East, also 3-0, for a non-conference matchup. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
REVERSING THE TREND
Rhinelander and Wausau East are enjoying resurgent starts to the 2019 season following a sting of several lean years. Here's a glance at each team's recent struggles.
Category RHS East
Record 2009-2018 20-71 18-74
Winning Percentage .220 .169
Last Playoff Appearance 2012 2012
Last Winning Season 1994 2012
2019 Record 3-0 3-0
9/12/2019 7:30:00 AM Hodags, Lumberjacks meet Friday in surprise battle of undefeateds teams
Raise your hand if you did not expect a Week 4 non-conference battle between the Rhinelander Hodags and Wausau East Lumberjacks to be a matchup of undefeated teams.
It's OK to admit surprise, especially considering the former Wisconsin Valley Conference rivals have had their share of struggles.
Rhinelander has not started a season 3-0 since 1974, and has not won more than three games in a season since going 4-5 in 2006. Wausau East has had a similar string of down years, having not posting a winning record since 2012. Both teams' last trip to the playoffs came that same year.
Yet, both teams sit at 3-0 and come in off impressive victories over Great Northern Conference opponents heading into a showdown tomorrow night at Mike Webster Stadium. The Hodags pulled away late for a 25-7 victory over previously unbeaten Lakeland to win the Northwoods Axe Game, while Wausau East won a barnburner at Mosinee, knocking off the preseason GNC favorite in overtime, 45-44.
"I'm proud of what we've done these first three weeks and it's a testament to these kids that they're hearing their name with the 1989 team (the last RHS team to win a conference championship) and amongst the conference leaders," RHS football coach Aaron Kraemer said. "That's excellent, but we're more focused on who's contributing offensively and defensively and how they can continue to contribute."
"It's almost night and day offensively and defensively through the first three games compared to last year when you look at stats," Kraemer added. "It's important to note, but it's also important to figure out how we can get better. Nobody's giving us a playoff berth after three games. Nobody's giving us a conference championship, a winning season. Those are goals that our kids want but nobody's going to give that to us. We've got to figure out a way to earn it."
Both teams decided to leave their conference for football at one point. Rhinelander defected from the Wisconsin Valley Conference in 2009 and was placed in the Great Northern Conference a year later. The Valley merged with the Fox Valley Association to become the Valley Football Association in 2011. Wausau East decided to pull out of the VFA in 2017 while petitioning to join the GNC. The WIAA is putting East back in the VFA next year under a state-wide football conference realignment plan.
Both teams are turning things around, however, under new coaching. Rhinelander is 3-0 in Kraemer's first year at the helm while Wausau East is in its second year under Kevin Grundy's direction. Grundy has had a history of success against Rhinelander, first at Antigo, then at Wausau West and now Wausau East. A 13-12 win over the Hodags' last year was Grundy's first with the Lumberjacks. Later in the season he helped guide East to a 14-7 upset of Wausau West in the Log Game.
"You have a coach that's very experienced that a lot of the coaches on our staff have a lot of respect for. I don't expect anything different," Kraemer said. "It's a school that's got a lot of pride and a lot going for it in other places, so why not football too? Just like us. I'm really not surprised by it. I'm excited for the challenge."
A 4-0 start would bring excitement that neither program has felt in quite some time.
"I think to either program, it just puts them in the right direction for the rest of their schedule," Kraemer said. "It's really just boosts confidence and it puts you in position to really move forward. Either team, coming out of this game, is going to feel confident, based on the start that they've had. But one team's going to have adversity and the other team is going to be flying high on a 4-0 start. We obviously want to be that 4-0 team and I'm challenging the guys this week to take that next step."
Other storylines to follow prior to tomorrow's 7 p.m. kickoff:
A major reason for Wausau East's turnaround this season has been a breakout start to the season by senior Donovan Leverette.
The 6-foot tailback has rushed for more than 250 yards per game and 11 yards per carry. He has 758 yards and nine touchdowns in only three games so far this season as the feature back in Grundy's Wing-T attack. He had only 380 yards rushing and two touchdowns last year while playing the final five games on varsity for the Lumberjacks.
So far this season, Leverette has accounted for 66 percent of the Lumberjacks' offensive yardage. He had 34 carries for 327 yards and four touchdowns in last Friday's win at Mosinee.
"I see a big, fast, athletic back that we're going to have to put to the ground," Kraemer said. "We're going to have to tackle through his thighs, make sure we squeeze him and make sure he get's down to the ground. He's a shifty guy, so we're going to have to come in under control, but we're also going to have to come in with enough pop to bring him down. We're going to have to rally to the football against him."
East does enough with its other backs to keep defenses honest. Fullback Jack Orhmundt is averaging 6.2 yards per carry.
It also helps to have a nice-sized line leading the way, and Wausau East has that with three starting linemen weighing in at 240 pounds or more. The Lumberjacks also have a beefy tight end in senior Jacob Thome (6-6, 240 lbs.), who has caught three passes for 85 yards on the rare occasions Wausau East goes to the air.
"The guys that block for him are very physical. They come off the ball very, very physically and fast," Kraemer said.
The question for Wausau East is which defense will show up this week, the one that held Merrill and Southern Door to a combined 13 points in the first two weeks of the season or the one that got touched for 443 yards of offense and 44 points against Mosinee.
Much of what Mosinee did against Wausau East last week came through the air, Trey Fitzgerald threw for 386 yards and three touchdowns. Drayton Lehman had 18 receptions - tied for the fourth-best single-game total in state history - for 214 yards.
"I see a defense that wants to pack it in and stop you from running the football," Kraemer said. "That's why I think Mosinee had success against them. They're used to that ground and pound and, just like we did last week, they got a new offense they hadn't seen before - a spread it out, pass it offense. It was a complete change of pace for them. I think that's why you saw some success for Mosinee."
East did a good job of keeping Rhinelander's Drake Martin in check during that game, holding him to 75 yards on 17 carries. Martin scored both of Rhinelander's touchdowns in that game and added 51 receiving yards on six catches.
While the 3-0 start has been refreshing for the Hodags, the team is entering arguably its roughest stretch of the season beginning this week with a resurgent Wausau East squad. Next week will bring a trip to Medford to take on the surprising Raiders (3-0), who are ranked No. 4 in Division 3 in the latest WisSports.net/WFCA coaches poll.
"I think the next two weeks are going to tell you a lot more than the first three games," Kraemer said. "Now we're coming to two of our most difficult opponents of the year, and back-to-back. When you evaluate Wausau East on film, and you evaluate Medford on film, they're going to be two difficult hurdles for us physically. We're going to match up against those teams."
Those contests will be followed by the Bell Game against Antigo at Mike Webster Stadium as the Hodags look to end a 13-year stretch of futility against the Red Robins.
Wausau East is the only non-conference opponent waiting on Rhinelander's schedule. While the final five games of the season will have more importance toward the Hodags' ultimate goal of making the playoffs, Rhinelander has this date circled on the calendar mainly because of what happened last year when the two teams played at Thom Field.
In that game, the Hodags failed to convert multiple times inside the Wausau East red zone, committed four turnovers and eventually lost by a point.
"We're excited to have them here and, hopefully, take back what we gave them last year," Kraemer said.
Both teams have turned some heads statewide with their 3-0 starts and were up for some sort of recognition following their week 3 performances.
Martin was one of five nominees for the WisSports.net Week 3 football player of the week following a performance that saw him rack up a combined 289 yards of offense and three touchdowns in the win over Lakeland. He also recorded 11 tackles on defense.
Wausau East, meanwhile, was up for the WisSports.net's team of the week award following it's Week 3 triumph at Mosinee.
Fans statewide are able to vote on the awards until 4 p.m. today.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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