Rhinelander senior Drake Martin reacts following a WIAA Division 3 Level 1 football playoff loss to River Falls at Ramer Field in River Falls Friday, Oct. 25. Martin finished his Rhinelander High School career with more than 3,500 rushing yards. (Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
10/29/2019 7:33:00 AM Shoutouts & Callouts
2019 RHS football team's legacy ultimately rests with the future
RIVER FALLS - First-year Rhinelander High School head football coach Aaron Kraemer could not hold back his emotions Friday night when talking about his senior class.
After all, the Hodags had come a long way from 1-8 in 2018, which led to a head coaching change, to 6-4 and only the third WIAA playoff berth in team history.
"We were about as rock bottom as you possibly could be and our seniors bought into a message," Kraemer said, choking back tears.
"That message was simply we don't have to wait," Kraemer added. "We can play now and we can win now. They also bought into the message that culture defeats strategy. With that in mind, they took the leadership role that they did and they played the way that they did."
Now that the season has come to an end, let's take a moment to celebrate what the Rhinelander High School football team has done.
It was an incredible season for the Hodags and their senior class that included a Bell Game victory, a WIAA playoff berth and the most wins in a season for an RHS team since the Clinton administration.
This class produced a 3,500-yard rusher in Drake Martin and gave the Rhinelander community plenty to talk about and be proud of this fall.
That did not make Friday night's 43-8 playoff loss at River Falls any easier to take, but this season still marks a significant occasion in Hodag football.
"Just to build," Kraemer said, voice cracking, of what the message to the team was in the postgame huddle. "We're right where we want to be. I told them before the game and I told them at halftime, I wouldn't want to do it with anybody else. I'm proud of the way they finished the game and I'm proud of the culture we built here."
The 2019 season is something those involved will be able to brag about at high school reunions 10, 20, 30 years down the road. However, the question remains, will this year's team be remembered as a one-year flash in the pan - a bright spot surrounded by a gulf of mediocrity - or will we look back at 2019 as the beginning of the renaissance of Rhinelander football?
Ultimately, this year's seniors will not have much say going forward in what the answer to that question will be. They will go off to bigger and better things. Some of them may find a way back to the program eventually, some inevitably won't.
Where the program goes from here rests in the hands of the coaches, the underclassmen and the community.
"I hope that these juniors and sophomores and freshman do justice by these seniors and really build a program," Kraemer said. "I think we had a good start with our seniors with what we want to accomplish."
Prior to this season, there had been four standout years for Hodag football over the course of the past three decades. There was the 1989 team that won a share of the Wisconsin Valley Conference title and went 8-2 overall. The 1994 team was the last with a winning record before this year, posting a 6-3 mark. In 2006, the Hodags won the Bell for the last time prior to this year and were one win away (4-5) from making the playoffs in a very good Wisconsin Valley Conference.
In 2012, the Hodags managed to make their way into the playoffs for only the second time in school history.
Rhinelander's combined record in the four seasons that followed those landmark campaigns - 7-30. That's less than two wins per season.
For programs that have struggled historically, success can either be fleeting or the start of something bigger.
For examples, one need look no further than Rhinelander's last two opponents. Ashland, with a strong senior class, shocked the GNC last year going 8-2 overall en route to winning the conference championship. That was followed by a winless campaign this year. In contrast, River Falls broke a 10-year playoff drought in style in 2018, winning the Big Rivers Conference title. Their encore performance was another BRC title despite losing standout running back Seth Kohel to a knee injury in Week 4.
"I think we saw what we can be and I think we saw what a team can look like when you put it all together," Kraemer said, "Coach (David Crail) has done a really great job here with this program. I talked to the kids yesterday and if you look them the last couple of years, they're right where we were - 1-8, 2-7. Coach comes in and builds a new culture and builds a blueprint of what he wants to see and they're where they are."
Will the 2020 Hodags be Ashland or River Falls? That question that will be decided in the offseason. For as talented as the Hodags were, depth became an issue later in the season. Rhinelander's production in the second half of the season compared to the first bears out that fact. That almost seems inevitable, however, when a team has roughly 22 guys - give or take a player - seeing the bulk of the playing time on Friday nights.
Simply put, football is still a numbers game and Rhinelander did extremely well this year considering its limited numbers.
The best-case scenario is that this year's success gets more kids interested in playing football. Not just the skill position types, but those with big frames who can be groomed to play on the offensive and defensive lines. Those returning hopefully renew their investment and dedication to the weight room and come back next year bigger, faster and stronger.
"My job now is to get to the drawing board, figure out what the toolbox is offensively and defensively, special teams, figure out where my coaches stand, invest in them, make sure they can lead our players, then invest in our new seniors and never forget what our old seniors brought us," Kraemer said.
From a community standpoint, there have been plenty of positives as of late - including all of the upgrades at Mike Webster Stadium, and the pledge to build the Hodag Sports Complex indoor facility that could be a game changer in athletics in Rhinelander for decades to come.
While we celebrate a successful 2019 season, it's time for those who hold a share in Hodag football to take the torch from this year's seniors, to double down their efforts, capitalize on this momentum and do their best to ensure that this season is not just a once-a-generation feel-good story, rather a keystone in the rebirth of the program.
"It started with this season, but I hope the juniors, sophomores, freshmen, those in the eighth and seventh grade, and our coaches, understand the importance of what our seniors have done and we continue to build on what they have done, instead of feeling complacent, like we just got here and that's where we want to be," Kraemer said.
Doing so would be the ultimate way to honor this year's senior class and to ensure their legacy lives on long after they receive their diplomas.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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