The Bluejays were not going to be denied.
Not when they fumbled their first snap from scrimmage, not when an inadvertent whistle took away a early pick-six from Scott Arneson.
Merrill quickly overcame those obstacles, building a 21-0 lead over Lakeland before halftime at Jay Stadium Friday night, on the way to a 35-6 triumph. The victory gave the Bluejays a perfect 6-0 record in the GNC Football Conference for a title all their own.
“Is this only the fourth time ever in school history to have a conference championship?,” MHS coach Nick Sturm asked rhetorically. “It means a lot. The kids were looking at the conference championship board and talking about it a week ago. This group is one of the select few that can say it won a conference title here in Merrill.
“I’m really just proud of the kids that were playing tonight and the effort they showed. They faced a lot of adversity as a team this week. They played together as a team and they rallied around each other.
“Our kids played hard the whole time and we executed. You’re going to win when you do that. These kids are a unique group. They deal with adversity very well. That’s going to be a very positive thing in their futures, whatever they choose to do.”
The adversity didn’t last long this time.
Mason Reinhardt and Lucas Lee each scored twice on the way to a 28-0 lead. Lee took a pitch three yards for the first score with 7:38 left in the first quarter, and Reinhardt blasted up the middle for three and four yards on the next two, on the first play of the second quarter and with 1:54 left in the half. Lee made a great adjustment to catch a 21-yard pass to the Lakeland six and three plays later caught a six-yard TD pass just 1:31 into the second half.
Six minutes later, Merrill kicked the running clock into motion when quarterback Chaz Mootz covered the final 10 yards of a 67-yard drive on back-to-back keepers. The T-Birds collected just their third first down of the game with three minutes left in the third quarter. Dustin Dengel seemed to roam their backfield at will in the first half. Lakeland was finally able to drive for a score against the Bluejay second string with 6:54 left in the game. A pass interference call saved them from a third-and-8 situation at the MHS eight.
The Bluejays have been guaranteed a playoff spot for weeks and will find out midday Saturday who their opponent will be.