Despite being beat up and hobbled, the Bluejay varsity football team still managed a 20-14 win at Ashland three weeks ago and in turn qualified for their eighth consecutive WIAA State Football Tournament appearance.
While the Jays were off on a much needed bye week, top ranked Antigo (4-0) and 2nd-ranked Medford (4-1) slugged it out in Antigo for the conference title Friday night.
Headed into the fourth, it looked as if the Red Robins may walk away with the conference crown as they held a convincing 21-7 lead of the Raiders.
That is until Medford decided to turn to the air and unleashed an aerial attack that would make any general proud.
Quarterback Ben Meier connected with fullback Josh Thiede on a 7-yard scoring strike, then connected with receiver Mikel Delzer from the end zone. Delzer snagged the spiral right around the 20-yard line and took it to the house, 99 yards for the score.
Due to two missed extra points, despite the pair of scores the Raiders found themselves down 21-19.
With just 20 seconds left in regulation, Meier opted for his legs instead of his arm and punched it in from a yard out then connected with receiver Garrett Strebig for the 2-point conversion and the win.
The Jays in turn tied for 2nd with Mosinee and Rhinelander, finishing third at 3-3.
When the WIAA released the pairings for the State Football Tournament on Saturday, the Jays found themselves slated to square off with the all-too-familiar GNC champs in their tournament debut Friday night.
The two squads have a long history of love and hate.
In fact, up until last season the teams were locked in a 2-2 tie since Merrill joined the GNC in 2009, left in 2010 and returned in 2011.
Last season, the Jays put up the biggest spread of the entire series en route to a 52-16 win at Jay Stadium.
Then on September 18th, the two schools met for their 2015 bout.
Despite a rainy and drizzly mudfest, the Jays rebounded from a 12-6 deficit to score 13 unanswered points in the fourth to steal the 19-12 win.
Below is a breakdown of Friday’s game set for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Medford High School.
The winner will square off Friday, October 30th, with the winner of Friday’s Antigo-Mosinee showdown.
*Statistics compiled are GNC conference statistics
WIAA State Football Tournament Level 1 Clash
#7 Merrill Bluejays (4-2/5-3)
#2 Medford Raiders (5-1/5-4)
Neither team showed a particular offensive edge in the Medford mud-fest but in looking at the big picture each team will bring a particular strong suit to the field Friday.
Not only are the Jays sporting the 2nd-ranked rushing offense in the conference, but in turn have an entire platoon of able-bodied backs who have not only combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 126 points (1,951 yds/21 TD), but are capable of doing virtually anything.
If the Jays are looking for the tough yards between the tackles, they have the option of Jake Collinsworth, a 6’1”, 205 pound battering ram fitted with an overdrive gear (71 att, 400 yds, 4TD) or Braeden Dorn, a 6’4”, 220 sophomore bulldozer (71 att,330 yds, TD).
If the command staff are looking to pick up the quick, open yards around the bend, there is the fleet-footed, shifty duo of sophomore Nevada Laabs (89 att, 528 yds, 5TD) and senior Austin Reissmann (37 att, 153 yds, 2TD).
Reissmann has in-turn emerged as a dual-threat as a receiver, stepping up as the team’s leading receiver (18 rec, 253 yds, 2 TD).
Or if all else fails and the command needs something, anything to happen… there is always the ever-elusive legs of senior quarterback Drew Hoff (84 att, 540 yds, 9TD).
Medford has a pair of talented backs as well in burly 215-pound work horse sophomore Josh Thiede (87, 614, 11TD) and fellow sophomore scatback Conrad Bolz (128 att, 761 yds, 6TD).
Where Merrrill holds the advantage is sheer numbers. While the Jays have plenty of depth and the numbers to back it up, the Raiders have only Thiede and Bolz with any considerable carrying experience.
While the Jays hold a clear advantage in the ground game, the Raiders take the cake in terms of an aerial attack.
Junior quarterback Ben Meier has the size (6’1”, 185) and ability to make plays from the pocket and has the numbers to show for it (64/132, 1,220 yds, 5TD, 7INT). Lack of considerable rushing yards on the stat sheet seems to point in the direction of Meier being a pocket-passer, but then again with a receiver like junior Mikel Delzer (36 rec/806 yards, 2TD) who also happens to be rated as one of the top receivers in the state (92nd/MaxPreps), what more does an effective passing attack need?
Three other receivers with over 100 receiving yards each and combining for 4 TD’s certainly doesn’t hurt.
Senior Bluejay quarterback Drew Hoff was stricken by the injury bug in the Homecoming game with Antigo, but stuck it out the remainder of the game. He then missed the Ashland game and came back to tough it out with Mosinee.
Due to these unfortunate circumstances, as well as the Jays having a bye-week, Hoff’s numbers are considerably lower than Meier’s (42/77, 539 yds, 4 TD) and has two less picks than Meier (5 and 7). But where the Raiders rise above here is the same reason the Jays rise above in the rushing game; depth.
Where the Raiders have four receivers who have shown an ability to make plays on any given day, the Jays have two. Senior glue-handed receiver Scott Wallace (12 rec, 169 yds) and Reissmann.
Just like the September 18th mud bath at Medford, Friday’s game could very well come down to who has the better defense.
The Jays once boasted the top defense in the conference, but after limping through the last few weeks, they have dropped to 4th overall (1,455 yds allowed) and the 5th ranked rushing defense (915 yds allowed).
However, the guys have the top pass defense after allowing only 540 yards all-season.
In a run-happy conference like the GNC, that usually may not mean much.
But facing a pass-happy team like the Raiders, the Jays’ pass-coverage may become a factor.
Medford has unseated Merrill with the top defense in the conference (216.4 yards per game average) and in turn boasts the 2nd ranked rush defense (528 yards allowed)
This is a toss-up and could go either way. But lets face it, Medford doesn’t exactly have a convincing track record.
Medford has shown they are willing to go to the air if the run isn’t working and in turn the Jays have shown they can play some serious pass defense even when not at 100%.
When they are healthy, 3 consecutive defensive shutouts speak for themselves.
Medford has given up a lot of points this season when facing quality opponents (Chippewa Falls 42, Mosinee 35, Menominee, MI 55 and Antigo 21).
Not so much true for Merrill. Aside from allowing 50 points in the season opener to Superior, the only other game where they have allowed more than 20 points is Mosinee.
History speaks for itself here, especially if the ‘Jays are back close to 100% healthy.
Another physical, defensive battle at Medford High School.
Merrill has had two weeks to rest and prepare and the Bluejay coaching staff have proven patient and methodical in their commitment to the running game, on more than one occasion.
It will be close early, but knowing how to beat the Raiders once already this season and the constant rotation of Bluejay backs will be the deciding factors.
Merrill: 20 Medford: 7