Mosinee’s Michal Dul, far right, breaks free from the pack after recovering a fumble during the third quarter of a Great Northern Conference football game against Rhinelander at Veterans Park in Mosinee Friday, Oct. 4. Mosinee outscored Rhinelander 14-0 in the second half and defeated the Hodags, 21-20. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Mosinee’s Cyle Kowalski makes a catch over Rhinelander’s Max Spaulding during the second quarter of a Great Northern Conference football game against Rhinelander at Veterans Park in Mosinee Friday, Oct. 4. Kowalski caught five passes for 165 yards, and all three Mosinee touchdowns, in the Indians’ 21-20 victory.
10/8/2019 7:30:00 AM Almost doesn't count Hodags can't hold 20-7 lead, fall to Mosinee 21-20
MOSINEE - Everything was going according to plan for the Rhinelander High School football team Friday night in Mosinee until it wasn't.
Big plays, and a key injury, cost the Hodag football team a chance to become playoff eligible, for at least one week. Mosinee's Trey Fitzgerald hooked up with wide receiver Cyle Kowalski for three touchdowns and the Indians rallied for a 21-20 win at Veterans Park in Mosinee.
Rhinelander led 20-7 at halftime and was driving near the Mosinee red zone when Michal Dul stripped receiver Jackson Labs and returned the ball to the Rhinelander 22. The Indians scored two plays later. Rhinelander tailback Drake Martin appeared to injure his left ankle on the next possession, and though he missed only a handful of plays, he and the Rhinelander offense were not the same the rest of the second half.
"They took the opportunities that we didn't," Rhinelander coach Aaron Kraemer said afterward. "That was the message. We talked about chances all week, opportunities, making our own luck. Luck is taking the opportunities that are presented for you. That's really what it is. They took those opportunities and we gave a few away."
Riding high after beating Antigo and winning Gene Shepard's Bell for the first time since 2006, the second half was a somber reminder that there is still work to do for the Hodags to qualify for the postseason for only the third time in school history.
"It's hard. It's hard for our players to play so hard and lose by one point," Kraemer said. "But, I tell you what, we talked about it at the end of the week, we got a little loose in our practice schedule, a little bit - I hate to say the word but - cocky in our demeanor. It's the little things like that, that can make the difference."
The teams traded punts after Kowalski's second score, a 24-yarder from Fitzgerald, made it 20-14. Rhinelander got the ball near midfield, facing fourth and 3, and appeared to pick up a first down, but the play was nullified by a holding call. Martin boomed a 62-yard punt that pinned Mosinee inside its own 20, but Fitzgerald rushed for 37 yards on the first play of the drive. Two plays later, on the opening snap of the fourth quarter, Fitzgerald found Kowalski over the top of the Rhinelander secondary for what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
Rhinelander drove inside the Mosinee 40 twice in the fourth quarter, but stalled. A pair of Quinn Lamers incompletions on fourth down ended both drives. Mosinee sealed it when Fitzgerald rushed for 18 yards on fourth and 1 with just under two minutes to play.
Mosinee rolled the dice on a fake punt in its first possession, but Dul stepped out of bounds one yard shy of the first down. The Hodags then marched down the field 61 yards on nine plays, capped off by a Martin five-yard score on fourth and 4.
Mosinee tied the game moments into the second quarter on a 37-yard pass from Fitzgerald to Kowalski, but the rest of the second quarter belonged to the Hodags. Rhinelander marched down the field 65 yards on nine plays on the ensuing possession, capped off by a one-yard run by Martin. Then the Hodags sacked Fitzgerald on fourth down inside the Rhinelander 30 to get the ball back and ran out nearly the rest of the second quarter, with Lamers finding Peyton Erikson with eight seconds left to go up 20-7 at the break.
"We thought we could control the football and I thought we did a pretty decent job of that in the first half. Being up by two scores going in (to halftime), that was great," Kraemer said.
Runs by Walker Hartman and Martin, coupled with a facemask penalty, allowed Rhinelander to get inside the Mosinee 35 just two plays into the second half. Then Rhinelander called a bubble screen to Labs. The receiver picked up another first down but was stood up near the 20-yard line and had the ball ripped away by Dul on a play that changed the momentum of the game.
"It's an unfortunate play for a kid who works very, very hard on blocking a lot for our backs," Kraemer said. "He gets his opportunity and makes a great play and it just turned the opposite way. We just didn't secure the football.
"It's our job to pick up our brothers when they make a mistake. Then the next drive we failed to push the ball down the field. We failed to capitalize on our opportunity, because we still had the ball and we were up by six points."
It was on the drive following Mosinee's second touchdown that Martin appeared to injure his ankle on a six-yard run on second down. He came out for the remainder of the series and Travis Towne punted in Martin's place when the drive stalled.
Martin returned on the next possession but was not the same. He had 19 carries for 122 yards before the injury and only eight carries for 22 yards after.
"He's got a tweak on the ankle and, like I've always said, he's a competitor and he's going to make sure he can come back," Kraemer said. "He's going to get in with (athletic trainer) Eric Prom and do his treatment. He's going to play. I know he will. That's just the type of person he is. He's not going to give up opportunities in his senior year to show everybody what he's got."
Kraemer insisted his play calling did not change following Martin's injury.
"It didn't change my play calling. Walker (Hartman) had a great second half running the football. He ran the ball hard," he said. "I think we had two or three really costly penalties. I thought we had two or three missed assignments that cost us a little bit. Like I said, in the game of football, when you give away opportunities to the other team and they seize them, it's really difficult to come out on the other end of things."
Mosinee entered the game with the state's top passing offense, and though Rhinelander held Mosinee to 217 yards through the air - 76 yards below its season average - big plays in the passing game ultimately hurt the Hodags.
Kowalski, who was ninth in the state in receiving yards entering the game, hauled in five passes for 165 yards - an average of 35 yards per catch. He beat Max Spaulding in single coverage for his touchdown grab in the second quarter. The other two scores appeared to be a matter of missed assignments in the secondary that allowed Kowalski to become uncovered.
"He had a great game. We knew going into this week they had the athletes on the edge," Kraemer said. "Those three touchdowns, we talked all week about taking away the big opportunities and they seized it."
Fitzgerald finished the night 14 of 18 passing and threw an interception in the first quarter. Spaulding picked off that pass and picked off another in the fourth quarter when Dul overthrew Kowalski on a trick play in the fourth quarter.
Rhinelander outgained Mosinee 289-273, had 17 first downs to Mosinee's 10 and possessed the ball for a whopping 32 minutes, 8 seconds, yet it wasn't enough.
Martin finished with 144 yards, leaving him 31 yards shy of reaching the 1,000-yard mark for the third straight season. Hartman added 55 yards on eight carries while Lamers was 5 of 8 passing for 81 yards. Erikson had two catches for 38 yards and tight end Connor Lund had two grabs for 26 yards.
Aside from Kowalski, the rest of Mosinee's receivers were held in check, totaling nine catches for 52 yards. Drayton Lehman, who was third in the state with 45 receptions entering the game, had five grabs for 27 yards.
The Hodags (5-2, 2-2 Great Northern) return home to take on Merrill (1-6, 1-3) Friday night at Mike Webster Stadium. The Bluejays come in off a 14-7 loss to Lakeland on Saturday in their homecoming game.
The matchup offers a bit of symmetry for Rhinelander, which needed a win over Merrill in the next-to-last game of the 2012 regular season to become playoff eligible. The Hodags will have a chance to repeat the script on Friday, as well as a chance to bounce back from a difficult defeat.
"I expect the response to be absolutely the same as it was after Medford," Kraemer said. "They know that we have to take it to Merrill. Merrill is still a very good team, regardless of what their record says. They have a great coaching staff. They run and offense that has been tough to stop for us for a very long time and it's going to be personal for us to take that opportunity because we gave this one away tonight."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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