In this Sept. 27, 2019 file photo, members of the Rhinelander High School football team celebrate with the Gene Shepard Bell Trophy after defeating Antigo 20-10 at Mike Webster Stadium. The first win for the Hodags in the Bell Game since 2006 was one of many highlights for the RHS football team in 2019. (Photos by Bob Mainhardt for the River News)
In this Aug. 29, 2019 file photo, Rhinelander’s Drake Martin scores a touchdown in a non-conference football game at Tomahawk. Martin rushed for 1,253 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.
11/16/2019 7:30:00 AM Team review: RHS football
2019 a special season for Hodag gridders
For a program that has been long on struggles and short on success, the 2019 season for the Rhinelander High School football team could only be described one way - special.
A year after a 1-8 record and a coaching change, the Hodags went on the one of the most successful runs in school history. The end result, a 6-4 mark, was Rhinelander's first winning season in football since 1994. It also resulted in only the third postseason appearance in team history.
That postseason contest, a 43-8 loss at River Falls, shows there is plenty of room for growth as a program for the Hodags, but first-year head coach Aaron Kraemer said the ending did not take away from an otherwise outstanding year.
"I know that the scoreboard isn't what we wanted it to be and I know it wasn't as competitive as our guys wanted it to be, but the opportunity to spend time with these young men, when you only have a limited time, it's special," he said. "To be able to take them down early, to get a chance to tour the River Falls athletic facility, go to a football game and then, ultimately, play in a Level 1 was really special to do it with these young men."
The opportunity to play in a tournament game was earned. The Hodags started 4-0 but had to battle through adversity in the second half of the season before defeating Ashland 16-12 in the final week of the regular season to clinch a playoff berth.
Here's a look back at the 2019 campaign.
Kraemer's honeymoon period as head coach could not have started any better. In fact, he called it a "dream."
After five years as an assistant and a tumultuous offseason that saw Chris Ferge relieved of his head coaching duties, Kraemer got his chance to lead the team and his first offensive play call as head coach worked to perfection.
Quarterback Quinn Lamers found a wide open Jackson Labs on playaction for a 50-yard score on Rhinelander's first play from scrimmage in the season opener at Prescott. The Hodags went on to win the game 21-0 to start a great opening half of the season.
Rhinelander followed that up with its first win over Tomahawk since 2010 - a 48-6 shellacking that was essentially over by halftime. Rhinelander followed with a 25-7 win over Lakeland to debut the new artificial turf surface at Mike Webster Stadium and then knocked off Wausau East 31-13 to move to 4-0 for the first time since 1974.
Rhinelander ended up ranked No. 10 in Division 3 in the WisSports.net/Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Poll following that Week 4 victory over Wausau East and Kraemer was named the state's prep football coach of the week by the WFCA and the Green Bay Packers.
"They came out and showed exactly what they could be capable of for the rest of the season and they built on it for the first several weeks," Kraemer said.
Rhinelander claimed one trophy in that hot start, defeating Lakeland for the Northwoods Axe for the second time in three years, but a bigger trophy loomed on the horizon, one that had eluded the Hodags for more than a decade.
Rhinelander was looking to avoid some dubious history in the Bell Game against Antigo, which the Red Robins had won 12 consecutive years. Another Antigo win would have matched the longest winning streak by either team in the trophy game series that dates back 85 years. It would have also marked the first time that either team had swept an entire calendar decade in the series.
The Hodags would have none of that. A Caleb Olcikas 85-yard kick return midway through the second quarter ended up being the winning score as the Hodags defeated the Robins 20-10 to bring the Bell back to Rhinelander for the first time since 2006.
"I talk about loving the guys, I really do," Kraemer said afterward in an emotional postgame interview. "This is another one of those moments I wanted them to have. We talked about moments all week. We talked about believing and getting to those moments. It's a moment that they're going to cherish for a very long time."
The win marked the first time Rhinelander defeated rivals Antigo and Lakeland for the first time in the same season since 2006.
The win over Antigo put Rhinelander one win away from playoff eligibility with three weeks remaining in the regular season. The Hodags ended up having to use all three chances to get into the postseason.
Rhinelander squandered 13-point first-half leads against Mosinee and Merrill, losing the games 21-20 and 27-21 in overtime. Star running-back Drake Martin sustained an ankle injury during the second half of the Mosinee loss that limited his production the rest of the season.
"Sometimes it takes experience - both as players and coaches - to be put in those positions," Kraemer said of the mettle-testing losses to the Indians and Bluejays. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't, but we learned from the opportunity and got an opportunity to still get into the playoffs with a final win at Ashland."
Not that defeating a winless Ashland team was easy. Ashland controlled the ball in the first half and scored right before the break as the Hodags clung to an 8-6 advantage after 24 minutes. Rhinelander parlayed a poor punt early in the third quarter into a Walker Hartman touchdown to go up 10, but Ashland scored with less than three minutes remaining to cut the lead to four. The Hodags recovered the ensuing onside kick and were able to run out the clock from there.
"We did it through grit, resolve, determination and response - the one thing I asked our kids to do all year long - and that's the way our season will be remembered," Kraemer said of clinching a WIAA playoff berth.
The Hodags were third in total offense (274.3 yards per game), and fourth in scoring offense (19.3 points per game) in the Great Northern Conference.
Martin was the catalyst of the offensive unit as he finished second in the GNC in rushing and ran for a career high 1,253 yards and 19 touchdowns. That put him over 3,500 yards for his high school career, behind only Troy Doering on the Hodags' all-time rushing list.
"He's somebody for the last three seasons that has stood out as a running back on our football," Kraemer said. "He's some both that's has grown and has continually gotten better in his craft ... I know he's proud of what he's been able to accomplish and I'm proud of him as well."
Martin was the lead of a three-headed monster in the backfield as he, Hartman (61 carries-395 yards-2 TDs) and Peyton Erikson (58-305-3) all averaged more than five yards per carry.
Junior quarterback Quinn Lamers won an offseason battle for the starting job over senior Nathan Kempf and was efficient with the football, throwing for 802 yards and seven touchdowns with only two interceptions. Labs, Erikson and Martin were Lamers' three favorite targets with 12, 11 and 10 catches, respectively. Erikson led the way with 263 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Rhinelander finished second in total defense (260.2 ypg) and third in scoring defense (19.3 ppg). Despite some struggles on the ground late in the season, Rhinelander still finished as the second-best run defense in the league, allowing 151 yards per game on the ground.
Hartman (59 tackles, 9 TFL), Erikson (58 tackles, 6 TFL) and Ben Sinclair (38 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks) were among the most active on the defensive unit. Max Spaulding chipped in a team-high three interceptions.
Rhinelander did not have a large senior class - only nine players -but all of them started at some point during the season. Martin and Erikson stand out as the biggest losses, as both received first-team all-conference honors this year, but the team will also graduate fellow all-conference recipients Trevor Knapp (OL/DL), Connor Lund (TE/LB), Spaulding (DB) and Payton Johnson (DB).
Hartman will be the only player returning from Rhinelander's running back trio, and the Hodags will likely look to incoming juniors Olcikas and Cayden Neri to help fill the void left by Martin and Erikson in the backfield.
Also, Rhinelander may go back to some version of shotgun spread next year after spending the entire season running a pro-style offense based in the I-formation. Rhinelander dabbled with a pistol look in the playoff loss to River Falls.
In Lamers, Hartman, Sinclair, Labs and lineman Alex Olson, Rhinelander is slated to return five all-conference players from this year's squad but the question entering the offseason, was if 2019 was a flash in the pan, or the start of more consistent success for the Hodag football program.
With the offseason program already underway, Kraemer said it's ultimately up to the returning players to define the legacy of this year's squad and continue the program's upward trajectory.
"We had one great season. One great season does not build a program," Kraemer told the team during its year-end banquet. "The blueprint these young men have left for you is something we can build on and we can show where their legacy will lay.
"It's up to us to build what we want to build - not just a football team, not just a varsity program - but a full football program for this community to be proud of and every single one of you will be a huge building block and part of that."
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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