The MHS football team hit the road for Friday’s Level 1 playoff contest, but ran into a tough and motivated opponent in Hortonville and watched an early tight game disintegrate into a 42-20 loss. The game featured a 4th/5th seed match-up.
“We didn’t play up to our ability level, but give them credit, that’s a good football team,” MHS coach Nick Sturm said. “It should be interesting to see them play Menasha this week.”
The Polar Bears converted a fourth-and-five with a fake punt on their opening drive, and Mitch Gerhartz bulled the final yard for his first of five touchdowns with 7:08 remaining in the first quarter.
Merrill wasted little time in answering the Polar Bear touchdown, as an option pitch to Mason Reinhardt covered the final 11 yard with 4:08 left in the quarter, tying it at 7-7.
The Jays came up short on fourth-and-six from their own 44-yard line in the second quarter, and Gerhartz scored from one yard out eight plays later for a 14-7 lead. On the ensuing Merrill possession, the ball was stripped from Wyatt Strombom after his forward momentum appeared to be stopped, but after a referees’ discussion, the Polar Bears were awarded the ball.
“There was a big momentum shift on that fumble and we had a hard time recovering from that,” Sturm said.
A 22-yard Jake Sommers run, 13-yard pass to Carter Beau?doin and 10-yard Gerhartz run gave Hortonville a 21-7 margin with 4:07 left.
The Bluejays’ sense of urgency grew with each Polar Bear touchdown, and they converted a fourth-and-one play from their own 41 yard line with 2:28 remaining in the first half. Unfortunately for Merrill, the drive stalled four plays later, forcing them to punt.
The MHS defense held in return, forcing the Polar Bears to punt, and Merrill took over at its own 49-yard line with just :45 left.
The Blue Jays took to the air to try to find a quick score before halftime, but Hortonville’s Austin O’Brien came up with an interception on a slightly underthrown ball to an open Jake Anderson, giving the Polar Bear offense another chance to score. On second-and-10, Sommers completed a perfect 57-yard scoring strike to Beaudoin over a leaping Anderson with :14.8 left for a 28-7 intermission lead.
“(Sommers) could sure sling the rock,” Sturm said. “He didn’t play in the two games prior to ours because he had an injury, but he had a fantastic arm.”
Hortonville drove from its own 25 early in the second half but Chaz Mootz thwarted a score with an interception in the end zone.
A short time later, Hortonville’s Kyle Witthuhn intercepted a pass near midfield and returned it to the MHS 11-yard line. On the next play, with 5:11 left, Gerhartz found the end zone for the fourth time for the 35-7 lead.
A Polar Bear stop on fourth-and-one gave them the ball on the Merrill 43-yard line and Gerhartz scampered to the end zone on the next play. Carlson’s sixth extra point made the score 42-7 with 3:11 remaining in the quarter kicking in the continuous clock.
Mootz connected with Anderson on a 23-yard strike with 11:50 to go in the fourth, but a low extra point kick left the score at 42-13. The Jays cut it to 43-20 on a 54-yard pass from Mootz to Tyler Butler with 5:19 to go. The Bluejays then recovered the ensuing trick onside kick where Christian Kleinschmidt – a straight-on kicker – changed his approach from angled to straight on at the last second.
“Coach (John) Paul stole that from somewhere,” That’s what good football coaching is. Somewhere along the line he saw something. Nothing is original.”
The opportunity ended on downs a few plays later.
Merrill would get one last chance when a victory formation snap was fumbled, but incompletions ended it.
The Polar Bears advance to Level 2 at top-seeded and undefeated Menasha – the #2 ranked team in the state — at 7:00 p.m. on Friday.
Hortonville finished with just a 378-316 advantage in total offense. Merrill compiled 154 rushing yards split among Rein?hardt (12-54, 1 TD), Strombom (12-50), Mootz (10-46), Lucas Lee (2-4) and Butler (1-3).
Gerhartz thrived on the sloppy field, amassing 200 yards on 25 carries, while Mason Reinhardt slipped several times immediately after breaking a tackle. The rest of the Polar Bear squad picked up 97 rushing yards on 15 carries.
“That might have been the worst field I’ve ever been on for a game,” Sturm said. “I couldn’t believe how muddy it was, especially since it wasn’t raining at the time. That field was a wreck before the game started.”
Mootz completed 13-of-21 passes for 165 yards to Jake Anderson (7-92, 1 TD), Butler (59, 1 TD), Lee (3-6) and Rein?hardt (1-8).
Pacing the defense were: Butler (8 Solos); Reinhardt (4 S, 1 TFL, 1 PBU); Lee (4 S, 1 sack); Arneson (4 S, 1 TFL); Christian Kleinschmidt (2 S, 1 A, 1 TFL); Mootz (2 S, 1 PBU); Dustin Dengel (1 S, 1 TFL); Jake Collinsworth (2 S).
The loss wrapped up a 7-3 season for MHS that included a 6-0 GNC championship.
“We maybe didn’t finish the year like we hoped, but it was a very good year,” Sturm said. “I’m especially proud of how the kids responded to adversity. That will be a valuable lesson down the road.
“We have a good returning group of athletes. A lot of their success will be determined on how hard they work in the off-season. They’ve got to build their bodies in the weight room and their competitive spirit in other sports. If everyone does that, we should have a solid year as well.”