The GNC Football Conference is a league of haves and have nots this year, with a four-touchdown gap between third-place Antigo and the two unbeatens.
Those Titans clashed in Mosinee on Friday night, and Merrill used sheer force of will to earn the 20-6 triumph.
“We knew they are tough and physical and we know this game has been on their calendar since the beginning of the year,” MHS coach Nick Sturm said. “They had a bye week, so they had an extra week to prepare for us.
“But our kids came in with the right mindset. We were able to move the ball right away, but we had a bunch of penalties that set us back and then we gave them that touchdown on the pick, so we were down to start.
“But the kids were determined they were going to score right away. There was no panic. This is a confident team. They knew they were going to be in this game and it would be a good game.”
Mosinee’s Kolton Owen returned an interception 85 yards for a 6-0 lead with 5:37 left in the half. But the Jays pounded out a return drive, and Mason Reinhardt scored his first of three TDs from 14 yards out with 2:06 remaining.
Reinhardt would amass 242 yards on 26 attempts (9.3 ypc), his 9-yard tally making it 13-0 with 5:37 to go in the third quarter and his 51-yard scamper pushing it to 20-6 with 11:15 left in the fourth.
“Mason had a great game,” Sturm said. “He broke a bunch of tackles and made some nice cuts on long runs.”
Two turnovers were key to the Jays securing their fifth consecutive win.
With Mosinee in the red zone, Trey Stevenson drilled the ball carrier and Ty Butler picked it cleanly out of the air. Late in the contest, Mosinee reached the Merrill five when Butler ripped the ball free and took off in the other direction.
“Ty made some fantastic plays,” Sturm said. “After that big hit by Trey, Ty picked it up. They were driving to score when Ty ripped the ball out of the receiver’s hands. That was huge.”
The reaction of the offense to that final turnover was critical.
“We were able to keep the ball out of their hands for the last 8-1/2 minutes,” Sturm said. “It was impressive that we were able to get first down after first down when we needed to. That was big.”
The offense ran up 396 yards, with 361 on the ground. Chaz Mootz (15-65), Wyatt Strombom (13-38) and Lucas Lee (5-16) backed Reinhardt. Mootz completed 4-of-6 passes for 35 yards with 2 interceptions. Jake Anderson (2-15), Reinhardt (1-15) and Scott Wallace (1-9) pulled them down.
Leading the defense were: Tyler Butler (3 solos, 1 TFL, 1 int., 1 FF, 2 FR); Jake Nohr (5 S, 2 assists, 1 TFL); Mootz (6 S); Trey Stevenson (4 S, 1 FF); Mitch Stockowitz (2 S, 1 A, 2 TFL); Scott Arneson (1 S, 1 PBU).
The victory assured Merrill of at least a tie for the GNC title, a deadlock they would win head-to-head. But the Jays can secure better playoff positioning with a victory in Friday’s home game with W. DePere (7-0), the #1-ranked team in D3.
“They are a top-level opponent, but it’s great to get them on our turf,” Sturm said. “It’s a great playoff primer, thats for sure.”
The Jays are on the D2/3 cusp, based on last year’s enrollment.