The boys of the Bluejay football team learned a lot about themselves when they quickly fell behind by two touchdowns to the AP’s top-ranked mid-sized school in the state, West DePere.
Just 2:16 into the first quarter, the Phantoms had already ripped off a 73-yard pass and a 59-yard run for TD’s in three plays from scrimmage, wrapped around a Merrill three-and-out.
“The speed early on was different than anything we had ever seen before, and our kids, it took them a little time to adjust,” MHS coach Nick Sturm said. “We kind of knew that was going to be the case coming in.
“Our kids responded well. They battled the whole game. This is only going to make us better down the road. This is one of the better teams in the state and I think our kids believe, ‘We can compete with those teams.’ And we’re ready. I’m proud of our kids’ effort tonight.”
The Jays – no slouches themselves at 6-1 overall and 5-0 in the GNC — learned they could hang with one of the top teams in the state, and they learned they may have to reinvent themselves to do it.
Since the ground game that exploded for 361 yards in last week’s game that decided the GNC championship was limited to just 34 yards, the Jays broke out an emphasis on the pass. Chaz Mootz completed 17-of-32 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. Mason Reinhardt , who had rushed for 242 last week, caught 9 quick-dump passes and turned them into 155 yards and the two scores. Jake Anderson also hauled in 4 for 93.
“If we can’t run the football we have to be able to throw it,” Sturm said. “Chaz stepped up and made some plays. We found some things about ourselves and we realized we have to work on some things. Chaz is a little bit different quarterback than (the injured) Drew (Hoff), and Chaz has a quick release and makes quick reads.
“We had a real hard time up front in this game. As far as establishing the run and things like that. We had to because they were blitzing the house and we couldn’t protect the quarterback. We had to use our quick game a lot more, and we work blitz checks. It worked pretty well tonight.”
Much of that short passing attack came as a half-time adjustment, but Merrill got its head back in the game after blocking the second extra point. A blocked field goal got them on the board. Two plays after Scott Arneson’s tackle for a loss played a large role in the field goal attempt, the line surged forward to block it and Arneson snatched it out of the air and returned it 80 yards for a score with 6:04 left in the second quarter. Trey Stevenson’s kick made it 13-7.
“That was a big play,” Sturm said. “That was an awesome thing. I think the kids started believing at that point.”
West DePere bumped the lead back up to 20-7 with just 1:33 left to intermission by converting a 4th-and-7 from the Merrill 12 with a buttonhook TD pass. The lead inflated to 27-7 with 2:46 left in the third when the Phantoms converted a 4-and-20 with a 34-yard strike from Beau Mommaerts to Connor Konshak, the same hook-up used for the initial score of the game.
The score hardly deflated the Merrill boys. Within 30 seconds they had cut it to 27-14. A 48-yard catch-and-run from Reinhardt led to a 21-yard TD where Reinhardt tipped it to himself, away from the cornerback bent on intercepting, and turned the corner for the final 20 yards.
Unfortunately, DePere would score again before the end of the quarter, boosting it to 34-14 on Dominique Conway’s 26-yard sprint. The extremely-quick Conway had also tallied the early 59-yard touchdown.
Just to make it interesting, six passes later, Mootz hooked up with Reinhardt for an 11-yard scoring strike to cut it to 34-21 with 10:41 left in the fourth. DePere took six minutes off the clock on the next drive, extending it with an offside on 4th-and -4, but the Jays got the ball on the next set of downs. A 13-yard completion to Reinhardt and a 41-yard bomb to Anderson gave Merrill a first down at the Phantom 10, but a sack and an interception thwarted the Jays.
The game should have been over at this point, but several twists still lie ahead.
Conway ripped off a long run, staying alive long after the play looked over, but Merrill Dustin Dengel capped it off by ripping the ball free from Conway’s arms. Another bomb to Anderson gave Merrill the ball at the DePere three, but a sack and 4th-down interception brought out the victory formation for the Phantoms. Crazily, the exchange was fumbled, giving Merrill the ball deep in Phantom territory, but Konshak came up with a pick in front of Anderson and the next victory snap ended it.
The Merrill boys fought to the bitter end, but the bottom line stared them in the face.
“It’s a loss,” Sturm said. “You never come away from a loss feeling good about everything.
“In everything we do, we want to learn from it. We’re figuring out, ‘Hey, we’re pretty good at this, and we may not do this as well.’ We’re trying to evaluate and put our kids in the best position to compete.”
Merrill hosts Lakeland (2-3, 3-5) for the GNC and regular-season closer at 7:00 p.m. on Friday night. A win would give the Bluejays the outright conference championship over Mosinee (4-1, 6-1).
“They’re a solid football team,” Sturm said of the T-Birds. “They play solid up front and they’re a pretty tough, physical team. We’ve got to play them well. I expect us to improve and I hope the fans come and watch.”
Mosinee defeated Lakeland 22-7 on Friday.