UPDATE- Merrill defeated Antigo by a score of 19-14 in Tuesday night’s Level 1 playoff game. The Bluejays will host Menomonie at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Level 2 playoff game at Jay Stadium.
For thirty years the Bluejay football team had not found a way to knock off traditional power D.C. Everest, despite playing the Evergreens for all but the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Consider that trend stopped dead in its tracks after Merrill took down a 28-14 triumph from D.C.E. at home on Thursday for the first win over the Evergreens since 1980.
The Jays improved to 4-2 to finish in a three-way tie for second in the WVC with Wis. Rapids and Marshfield, and capped the regular season at 7-2 in the process. SPASH won the league at 5-1.
“I thought our kids were well-prepared and confident that they were the better football team,” MHS coach Tom Tourtillott said. “I was very pleased with the way the kids executed.
“To finish the regular season at 7-2 with a WVC schedule is a pretty nice accomplishment. It really gets us playoff ready because of the level of the competition.”
The Bluejays opened the post-season at Antigo on Tuesday in a game played too late for this edition of the Foto News. The Red Robins ended up 6-2 and lost 21-14 to Merrill back on Sept. 10, but their 4-0 record in the inferior GNC gave them the seeding nod.
While the Jays would have liked to open the playoffs at home, the current schedule still offers a favorable set-up as long as they defeated Antigo again. Level 2 would definitely be at home, since #3 seed Menomonie hosted the first round and opponent Holmen had a 4-5 overall record. Level 3 could also end up in town if Marshfield (4-2, 5-3) upsets #1 seed LaCrosse Logan (6-0, 8-1).
“I like our draw,” Tourtillott said prior to the contest. “If we take care of business with Antigo, we would get Menomonie at home.
“Antigo is a great football team, very physical. We know we have our hands full, but I’m confident we can play our best football, and if that happens we’re tough to beat.”
Just the Everest streak alone made this a big game for the Bluejays, but lesser than it could have been.
“From Antigo forward they’ve all been big games,” Tourtillott said. “Maybe East wasn’t the biggest game, but Marshfield, Rapids, Point, West and Everest were all pretty big games. We kind of looked at it that after Point, we couldn’t lost any more games, period.”
It probably held great overall importance to Everest, which not only hoped to keep its string alive over Merrill, but even more hoped to avoid a second consecutive 2-6 season. The Evergreens only managed to defeat East in the WVC.
But come kick-off, it mattered more to Merrill.
“I could see in their eyes the kids were ready to play,” Tourtillott said. “That’s a great feeling as a coach. A ton of the credit-all the credit-goes to the coaching staff. They’ve done a great job of getting the kids prepared and getting them confident to play to their ability.”
Merrill had taken a 7-0 lead with 2:05 left in the first quarter on a 33-yard pass from Sam Arneson to Matt Woller. But the Evergreens managed to keep it there until a strategic error late in the half. The Jays were forced to punt with a 4th-and-9 situation from their own 25 with less than three minutes remaining.
“(D.C.E. coach Wayne Steffenhagen) took a time out, so we met on our sideline with our punt team and our offense,” Tourtillott said. “The film showed he put in nine subs for a punt return, so after the time out we went to our spread offense so he would burn another time out. He didn’t take another time out, and their defense was all over the place. They only rushed two guys and we completed a pass, I think it was to (Jordan) Burton, for the first down.”
Two plays later, Arneson found Burton for a 43-yard strike, and Arneson closed the drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Woller-his fifth TD catch in the last two games-for a 14-0 lead with just :43 left in the half.
“That was big to go up 14-0 at the half,” Tourtillott said.
The Jays jumped it to 21-0 when Arneson scored with just 8:08 left in the third quarter on a one-yard blast.
The Evergreens finally managed a big play with a 68-yard scoring run by Sam Meyers with 3:13 left in the third.
But Merrill answered with a clock-killing drive, capped by four-yard Arneson run, for a 28-7 lead with 6:04 to go in the game after Alex Cordova’s fourth PAT kick.
The Evergreens made it somewhat interesting with a 95-yard Corey Griffen TD return on the ensuing kickoff, but the scoring would stop there.
Tourtillott enjoyed several facets of his team’s performance.
“We had great protection up front,” he said. “We were very balanced offensively. We eliminated their running game. Their touchdown was a 68-yard run and what did they have for total rushing, 109 yards? And if you look at the 68-yard run, his knee goes down after a 15-yard gain. We made them one-dimensional.
“Our pass defense was greatly improved. I was also pleased with the way Alec Oestreich stepped in when we had an injury and came up with a big interception.”
Merrill limited Everest to just 191 yards of offense and six first downs. In contrast, the Jays pounded out 215 rushing yards and bombed 221 yards passing for 436 yards of offense, racking up 18 first downs.
Arneson rushed for 108 yards on 25 carries, and Austin Voigt (18-75) and Kyle Kubichek (9-32) chipped in. Arneson also completed 10-23 passes for the 221 yards, hitting Woller (4-131), Burton (3-62), Michael Ball (2-22) and Kubichek (1-6).
Leaders on defense were: Burton (7 s, 1 TFL); Ray Paul (2 s, 1 int.); Michael Koppelman (1 s, 1, a, 1 TFL); Luke Zuelsdorff (3 a); and Oestreich (1 s, 1 int./26-yard return).