Rhinelander High School football coach Aaron Kraemer addresses members of his team following a 27-21 overtime loss to Merrill at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Oct. 11. Sitting at 2-3 in the Great Northern Conference, the Hodags need a win at Ashland on Friday to become playoff eligible, or the team will miss the WIAA playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.
Rhinelander’s Drake Martin carries the football during a GNC football game against Merrill at Mike Webster Stadium Friday, Oct. 11. Martin needs 54 yards Friday at Ashland to set a career high for rushing yards in a season (1,167) and is only 107 yards away from 3,500 for his career.
10/17/2019 7:30:00 AM Finish or finished Hodags head to Ashland needing a win to extend their season
The Rhinelander High School football team is down to its final strike in its quest to make the WIAA playoffs for the first time since 2012.
After squandering 13-point first-half leads the last two weeks against Mosinee and Merrill, the equation for Rhinelander is simple - beat winless Ashland Friday night at Weikal Field or be a spectator when the playoffs kick off next week.
"The fortunate thing is we had three opportunities to make it. The unfortunate thing is now we only have one left and we still have a hurdle to climb," RHS football coach Aaron Kraemer said. "But, I tell you what, I'd rather have this problem than another problem, which is the forever certainty that I know the season is going to be done with these guys and that there's nothing to fight for anymore. Our guys have plenty of fight left in them and this week is an excellent opportunity to show how much fight we have left, how much we care for each other and how much desire we have to make it to the next point."
The Hodags are preparing for a de facto playoff game by attempting to remove the word "playoffs" from their lexicon. Kraemer said he believes the prospect of getting into the postseason has taken a toll in the second half of the last two contests.
"It better not be a mental block this week because we've talked about getting rid of that thought," he said. "If we make the playoffs, we make the playoffs. Now we're not guaranteed, let's just win, do what we can do and control what we can control."
Technically, Kraemer is correct. A win tomorrow night would only make the Hodags' playoff eligible, and not automatically qualify the team for the postseason. But, with far fewer than the playoff cap of 224 teams projected to finish with .500 or better records in their respective conferences, a win would virtually assure RHS plays on for at least one more week.
With that in mind, Kraemer wrote three words on the whiteboard for his players to contemplate this week - "finish or finished?"
"We talked about that, 'Are we done or are we going to finish this thing the way that we know how and the way we finished five of our first six games?'"
Here are five storylines to follow for tomorrow night's contest.
Still the champs
How is Rhinelander preparing to so it does not let its guard down against an 0-8 team? By not treating the Oredockers like they are an 0-8 team. Ashland was the Cinderella of the GNC last year, going from mediocrity to undefeated conference champions in one short season. The Oredockers have regressed this year with a roster chock-full of underclassmen. Although tomorrow night will be the final night of Ashland's year-long reign over the GNC, Kraemer said the Hodags are treating the Oredockers like the conference champs that they are.
"Yes, Medford, with a win, is going to be conference champs this year but, until they are crowned, this is our conference champ and we need to treat them like they're the conference champ. We've got to prepare like we're playing the conference champ. We need to get ourselves and our minds right because this is going to be a challenge," he said.
Playing for pride
Ashland will not be playing for a conference title or a playoff berth this year, but the Oredockers will be looking to avoid their first winless season since 2013. It's also Ashland's homecoming night, along with senior night. Kraemer said all three will serve as motivating factors.
"This year was obviously a setback for them," he said. "Coach (Travis) Larson is a heck of a coach and he's going to want them to get back to form. They have a lot to play for on their homecoming and senior night. Our job is to weather that first storm because they have that external motivation."
More of the same?
Ashland's offensive numbers certainly are not gaudy. The Oredockers come into tomorrow night's game averaging 7.8 points and 225.3 yards per game this season. Still, Kraemer said Ashland's offense will pose some challenges for Rhinelander's defense.
That's because the Oredockers run the wishbone offense, which has a number of the same concepts with the option that Merrill used successfully against the Hodag defense in the second half of last week's game.
The difference is that Ashland's running game is truly a committee approach with five players having at least 49 carries on the season - led by Jaylen King (68 carries-333 yards-3 TDs), Jared Stricker (62-284-1) and Parker Goodreau (63-268-1). What's more, quarterback Jackson Bonneville, is a little more proficient in the passing game than Merrill's Caleb DeJong was. Bonneville is 29 of 76 passing on the year for 493 yards with four touchdowns and seven interceptions.
"They're much like Merrill," Kraemer said. "They're a methodical team and they're going to run, and run, and run, and run. They do have a quarterback with a pretty nice arm. He's a pretty good player for them and a very solid athlete all-around. They have athletes at their skill positions and they have large offensive linemen that can pose a threat to us, just like the Merrill guys did."
Much like Merrill, Ashland has been respectable against the run this year, allowing 190.1 yards per game on the ground. The Oredockers are allowing 5.6 yards per carry and coming in giving up a GNC-worst 29.1 points per game.
The Oredockers run a 5-2 front and Kraemer said he expects Ashland to bring a safety into the box a play a look similar to Antigo's 5-2 monster scheme.
Stricker leads the team with 74 total tackles, while Willy Bearskin has a team-best nine tackles for loss and three sacks.
"When you look at their team, they have some size at middle linebacker and on the line and they have some athletes at the corners but if we do what we do best - which is control the football and run the football, and we are efficient in our passing game - we'll be better this week."
Magic number: 28
In more ways than one, Rhinelander will be focused on the number 28 this week.
For starters, that's Drake Martin's jersey number and Kraemer said the tailback is back near 100 percent after rolling his ankle two weeks ago in the loss at Mosinee. Martin is chasing a trio of milestones tomorrow night. First he officially needs 54 yards to set a career high rushing. He needs 91 yards to reach 1,200 on a season for the first time in his career and he can get to 3,500 career rushing yards with 107 on Friday.
"We got to get the ball to 28 and let him play," Kraemer said. "This could be his last game so he's going to want to show out. I know stats do mean a lot to him and he does look at how he's doing compared to other seasons. He's proud of where he is but he wants to break his record from last year and continually get better."
The second reason 28 is a magic number - the Hodags have only reached that number of points twice in a game this season and are undefeated when doing so. One more score to get to 28 points would have gone a long way against Mosinee and Merrill.
"I told the guys last week that 28 points was going to win it, and I told them the week before that 28 points was going to win it. I think that's the magic number for us," Kraemer said. "Let's get to 28. Let's get four scores. If we can't score again to get it to 35, let's play great defense and give ourselves a chance to win at the end of the game."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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