Rhinelander High School football players, from left to right, Payton Johnson, Connor Lund and Chad Hunt pose with awards they were presented during the teamís banquet at Cabaret Cove banquet center Sunday, Oct. 27. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
Rhinelander High School football coach Aaron Kraemer addresses the crowd during the teamís banquet at Cabaret Cove banquet center Sunday, Oct. 27.
11/2/2019 7:32:00 AM Kraemer, Hodag gridders look back on memorable season at banquet
As players, parents and friends of the Rhinelander High School football program gathered for the team banquet Sunday at the Cabaret Cove banquet center, there was one table that stood out from the rest.
It was a table of nine at the head of the room and filling the chairs were the team's nine seniors.
The seniors were the special guests as the team put a bow on one of its most successful seasons in over the last three decades.
Every contributor was talked about, the all-conference award winners were recognized and three special program awards were handed out. But the night belonged to the senior class that led the Hodags to a 6-4 mark, Rhinelander's first winning season since 1994, the school's third WIAA playoff appearance and its first win over archrival Antigo in the Bell Game since 2006.
All nine seniors received a special memento from the team, an updated team poster that included the scores of all 10 varsity games this season and the words "playoff bound."
Hodag coach Aaron Kraemer called the seniors the night's guests of honor.
"They're guests of honor because of their hard work, but they're also guests of honor because of the leadership they grew into," he said. "I'm very proud of this group of young men, very proud of the entire group that represented our school and our program and our community in such a positive way. We really have a lot to be proud of and a lot of accomplishments to celebrate."
Kraemer, in his first year as Hodag football head coach, elected not to award a number of the standard awards such as most valuable player, lineman of the year and the like. Instead the team gave out only three program-builder awards - senior Connor Lund earned the Heart of the Hodag award, senior Payton Johnson earned the Transformer award and sophomore Chad Hunt won the Scout Team player of the year.
"A lot of year we've given out awards for statistics. To me, statistics you're rewarded for already," Kraemer said. "A lot of times our best statistical leaders are given first-team all-conference, second-team all-conference, all-region awards. This year we talked about character-type awards. The character-type awards are special awards for special people."
Kraemer said Lund emerged as a leader among leaders in this year's Hodag senior class. Aside from being an all-Great Northern Conference tight end and outside linebacker, Lund emerged as one of the leading voices on the team.
"This is the guy who spoke for all nine (seniors)," Kraemer said. "This is the guy who spoke for us at every football game, and this is the player that led our football program to where we are. We have a lot of exceptional young men who have done a lot as far as statistics and growing as a football player. This young man cares about every single person in this room. He cares about the direction of this football program. He cares about the way we are moving, together.
"He knows what it means to be a true Hodag and I hope he continues to take that type of leadership and belief into the next level of whatever decides to do."
Johnson receiving the Transformer award was as much about how he transformed his body from freshman year to senior year as it was how much his presence on the team grew. An all-conference cornerback, Kraemer said Johnson was not only the, "most fundamentally sound football player I've ever coached," but also led by example.
"He's done an excellent job of being one of the most consistent weight room attendees in his time at RHS," Kraemer said. "He's also somebody that has changed a ton as far as his character and leadership has gone. He's not the most vocal, but he is somebody that will say the right thing at the right time and will do the right thing to show others the direction of where to go, and what they example should be."
Hunt's role on the varsity team as a sophomore grew as the season progressed, taking more snaps at inside linebacker late in the season while senior Drake Martin battled through an ankle injury. Kraemer said Hunt will be a valuable player for the Hodags on Friday night moving forward, but that's not why he got an award this year.
"We counted on him Friday nights, but we counted on him more Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday," he said. "Chad is somebody who gave our offense the best possible look as a defensive scout team player. He's somebody that was our best scout team player and made our team much better."
Kraemer admitted that this year's senior class - six of whom received all-conference recognition - will be difficult to replace, but issued a challenge to the returning players to improve upon this year's memorable season.
"It's very emotional to see these guys go, very emotional to see the end of a football season that was so successful," he said. "But, I will tell you that next Monday, we start a new chapter. Next Monday we start to build on a legacy that was left from our seniors. Our seniors will continue to show use the light for the rest of this season, but it's up to us to build what we want to build - not just a football team or a varsity program - but a full program for this community to be proud of. Every single one of you will be a huge part and a building block of that. But, remember, it will be the way that you respond that will prove what we will be as a team in the future."
In presenting each individual player on Sunday night, Kraemer alluded two more awards that could be in the offing for two Rhinelander seniors - Martin and Peyton Erikson.
He said both Martin and Erikson had been nominated for All-Region honors by the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association. Additionally, that Erikson has been named a Channel 7 All-Star as a defensive back.
Martin rushed for a career-high 1,253 yards and 19-touchdowns this season and, entering Friday's Level 2 playoff games, was ranked third in the state with a 44.4-yard punting average. Erikson finished second on the team with 58 tackles, including three sacks and six tackles for loss.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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