The Rhinelander High School football team celebrates following a 16-12 victory over the Ashland Oredockers in a Great Northern Conference football game at Weikal Field in Ashland Friday, Oct. 18. The victory secured a WIAA playoff berth for Rhinelander for only the third time in school history and first time since 2012. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander’s Walker Hartman runs for a touchdown during the third quarter of a Great Northern Conference football game against Ashland at Weikal Field Friday, Oct. 18. Hartman’s score put the Hodags ahead 16-6. The Hodags won the game, 16-12.
10/22/2019 7:30:00 AM PLAYOFF BOUND Hodags fend off Ashland 16-12, punch ticket to WIAA playoffs
In front of one of the most important games the Rhinelander High School football team has played in the last 25 years, the biggest pep talk of the week was delivered not by head coach Aaron Kraemer but by his mother.
"She said 'You've kind of lost your joy, where is it,'" Kraemer explained, admitting that he was down emotionally after his team squandered chances to get into the WIAA tournament in back-to-back weeks. "She said, 'Let's find it. Enjoy the kids, be with them and don't worry about winning. Just go out and play.'"
The Hodags played Friday night, and they'll play again this Friday night.
It was not easy, but the Hodags found a way to fend off winless Ashland 16-12 at Weikal Field, becoming playoff eligible for only the third time in school history and the first time since 2012.
Drake Martin and Walker Hartman each scored touchdowns for the Hodags. That was enough to get the job done despite being held to less than 200 yards by a surprisingly stubborn Ashland defense.
"It was just a grind. We knew we had to finish in the second half and that's exactly what we did," Hodag senior Trevor Knapp said.
Rhinelander found itself locked in a tight game, ahead 8-6 at halftime after Ashland scored in the final moments of the second quarter. That's when Kraemer found himself relaying his mother's advice to his senior leaders.
"I told them I don't care what the score's going to be. I had a talk with the seniors on the sideline and I said, 'Let's just have fun here.' If this is our last half of football we're going to play, we're going to have fun doing it," he said.
Momentum changed early in the third quarter when Ashland was forced to punt after a three-and-out. Jackson Bonneville shanked his effort into the wind, a seven-yard punt that put the Hodags on the Ashland 32. Five plays later, Hartman ran it in from 19 yards and Martin scored a two-point conversion to give Rhinelander a 16-6 lead.
The Hodags appeared to nearly have the game salted away, but had a first down run negated by a holding penalty and eventually threw an incomplete pass on third and 30. Martin had the ensuing punt blocked and Ashland took over at the Rhinelander 30 with 3:10 remaining.
With Ashland facing fourth and 10 from the 19, Bonneville found Willy Bearskin in the end zone for a touchdown, trimming the lead to four with 2:15 to play, but Ashland called timeout just before the fourth down play, leaving the Oredockers with one remaining.
That proved critical after Caleb Olcikas fielded the ensuing onside kick for Rhinelander. The Hodags ran four times, including a play that was nullified due to holding, and the clock struck zero just before the Hodags faced a fourth and eight.
"It's really, really special to get back to the playoffs for our program, to set ourselves up for the younger kids to move in the right direction moving forward and just to do the right things and show that we are a program that isn't just a varsity football team, but a program of kids that's going to come together, a community people that's going to come together and rally around football," Kraemer said.
Added Hartman: "It's crazy. At the start of the season, that was our goal and to accomplish it, I don't know, it hasn't sunk in yet."
Rhinelander led at half despite being outgained by a nearly 2-to-1 margin and having only 5 minutes, 49 seconds of possession.
Ashland marched down the field on its opening drive but fullback Isaak Livingston had the ball stripped by outside linebacker Nate Kempf, and Hartman recovered at the Hodag 15.
Rhinelander responded with an 85-yard drive that included a 19-yard run by Peyton Erikson, a 24-yard screen pass from quarterback Quinn Lamers to Martin and a 44-yard run by Hartman that set up Martin for his 19th touchdown of the season, a one-yard run with 11 seconds remaining in the opening quarter. Martin ran in the two-point conversion to put the Hodags ahead 8-0.
Ashland drove into Rhinelander territory again on its next possession, but Ben Sinclair came up with a key fourth-down stop on Jaylen King to turn possession back over to Rhinelander. The Hodags could not do anything, offensively, however, and Ashland took up nearly the remainder of the second quarter as it drove down field 80 yards. The Ordockers completed a third-and-29 pass to Alec Lindenberg down to the one and Livingston ran it in on the next play to cut the lead to two points.
Ashland's sustained rushing attack was eerily similar to what Merrill did to exploit the Hodags in a 27-21 upset last week.
Rhinelander stiffened in the second half, adjusting to the unbalanced formation the Oredockers were using. Ashland was held to 76 yards of offense in the second half, after gaining 147 in the first half.
"I think the defensive adjustment changed the game for us," Kraemer said.
Rhinelander held Ashland to three-and-outs on their first two drives of the second half. Ashland's third drive of the half was a sustained 14-play effort, but it stalled out near midfield after Sinclair sacked Bonneville for an 11-yard loss on a first-and-10 play and the Oredockers were eventually forced to punt.
Setting the trap
Hartman and Erikson combined for only six carries in the game, but ran for 86 yards. The team's two H-backs were able to get free on trap plays. Erikson's 19-yard run and Hartman's 44-yard run on the first scoring drive were trap plays, as was Hartman's 19-yard score in the third quarter.
With Ashland's defense focusing on Martin, Kraemer dialed up misdirection at the right time.
"We've always run trap, we just gave it a different look," he said. "Teams were keying off our H-back, keying to our toss the last two weeks, so we decided if they're going to do that, let's run this play. It worked out for us."
Of course the right play call does not work without proper execution, as Hartman was quick to point out.
'The O-line had some big holes," he said. "That's all I can say. The O-line had some big holes, we had some nice blocks by the receivers and that's all we needed there."
Martin was held to only nine yards rushing in the first half, but picked it up in the second to finish with 73 yards on 22 carries. He set a new single-season career high in rushing (1,182 yards) as a result. Martin added two receptions for 39 yards and Hartman had 64 yards on four carries. Lamers was 3 of 7 passing for 38 yards.
Livingston led Ashland with 81 yards on 25 carries as the Oredockers outgained the Hodags 223-193 in the contest. Bonneville was 7 of 13 passing for 82 yards. Lindenberg had two catches for 36 yards.
Rhinelander ended up with the No. 6 seed in an eight-team Division 3 grouping that includes all four schools that qualified for the playoffs out of the Great Northern Conference. The Hodags will travel to face third-seeded River Falls this coming Friday. The Wildcats were co-champions of the Big Rivers Conference, going 7-2 overall.
"We don't have anything to lose, we've made it now," Kraemer said. "Anything can happen in the playoffs. You have to play the game. We're going to have to study a team we've never played, we've never looked at. Now it's time to get back to the lab, figure out what this team's going to try to do to exploit what we do and how we can exploit them, too."
Menomonie (8-1), which shared the Big Rivers title with River Falls, earned the No. 1 seed in the grouping ahead of undefeated GNC-champion Medford (9-0). The Mustangs will host eighth-seeded Lakeland (6-3) while Medford drew seventh-seeded Hayward/Lac Courte Oreilles (6-3). Mosinee (6-3) is the No. 5 seed and will travel to New Richmond (7-2) for Level 1.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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