Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the WIAA playoffs is the opportunity to right regular-season wrongs. A chance to make good on old debts and settle scores once and for all, or at least until a new season dawns.
That was precisely the case last Saturday when the WIAA’s post-season pairings were announced, and Merrill was slated to head due-west for another bout with Medford on Friday evening.
The Bluejay-Raider saga is a storied one to say the least.
The two programs have jockeyed for bragging rights since Merrill arrived in the Great Northern Conference in 2009 and returned in 201,1 after a one-season hiatus in the Wisconsin Valley Conference.
The two small-town heavyweights stood at a 2-2 lock until last season when the Jays took the Raiders for a 52-16 ride at Jay Stadium.
Then on September 18th, the Jays stretched the series to 4-2 after stealing a 19-12 win in the wake of a mud bath on the Raiders’ home stomping grounds.
The win came far from easy though as both squads slugged it out in a bitter tooth-and-nail defensive struggle.
The game came down to the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter when the deadly, fleet footed combination of sophomore running back Nevada Laabs and senior quarterback Drew Hoff, accounted for a score each to tip the scale in Merrill’s favor.
Laabs dealt the lethal blow with a 50-yard scoring scamper with just over a minute left in the game.
When the two teams met Friday, the circumstances had shifted more than a bit.
Not only had the Jays recovered from an injury bug which had plagued the team for the last three games of the regular season, but Medford had rebounded from the loss at the claws of the Jays to topple Antigo for the GNC championship, 27-21, despite the ever- hostile environment at the Red Robins’ Schofield Stadium.
When the much anticipated game finally dawned on Friday evening, the two squads found themselves in an all-too-familiar environment.
Not only was the Raider fan section of the bleachers loud and proud as always, but mother nature had decided to once again add her own touch to the field with intermittent drizzle, a stiff consistent wind and a less than favorable 41 degrees.
Just as they had in the regular season bout, the high-octane Bluejay rushing attack wasted no time in going to work.
On the fourth play from scrimmage, Hoff took the snap and hooked up parallel to Laabs’ right shoulder. As the pair rolled off behind the left side of the mammoth Bluejay offensive line on an option play, the Raider defense converged.
Hoff stutter-stepped as if to cut back inside, then suddenly cut outside behind left tackle Jonathan Gruetzmacher, followed a stifling block from the 6’8”, 280-pounder, slipped through a narrow crease, engaged the after burners and bolted 66 yards downfield for six. Ryan Golisch’s extra point made it 7-0 Jays after just 40 seconds into the game.
The Raiders soon flexed a bit of ground pounding of their own. Just over a minute from the time Hoff scored, Raider tailback Conrad Bolz cut hard right on a counter play for a 28-yard score.
A failed extra point left the Raiders down a point and the Jays wasted no time in stretching the deficit to 13 points, as Laabs busted open Merrill’s second possession with a 51-yard scamper to the Medford eight. Hoff punched in his second score of the game with 8:35 left in the first quarter for a 14-6 lead.
The Raiders hit the ground running again on their second possession, but was stifled on 4th and 8 near midfield.
Unfortunately, as the Raiders’ punter connected with the football, a Bluejay defender made contact and drew a roughing the kicker flag. The final result was another long-distance run from Bolz, this time from 37 yards. A smashmouth 2-point conversion run from fullback Josh Thiede tied it up with over 5 minutes remaining in the first.
Hoff brought the unbelievable 1st quarter to an end on a 5-yard scoring plunge with just over a minute left for a 21-14 lead. Friday’s first quarter fell just 6 points short of the total points scored on September 18.
The second quarter would yield a much slower tempo for both offenses as their defensive adversaries dug in. Bolz cashed in for the last score of the first half, but another failed Raider extra point left the Jays with a 21-20 intermission edge.
The guys found themselves blanked again in the third due to a combination of a fumble and a much tighter Raider defense.
Medford quarterback Ben Meier handed his team the first lead of the game midway through the third on an 11-yard scoring strike to the end zone. Despite yet failed point after attempt, the Raiders swiped the 26-21 lead.
The fourth quarter dawned with a renewed effort from both squads, as well a renewed effort of rain and wind from mother nature. Down just six points, the Bluejay ground attack seemed to find its second wind late in the fourth. Led off by a spectacular 4th down fake-punt and run by senior running back Austin Reissmann for 22 yards, the guys seemingly gained steam with every charge.
On 3rd down with roughly 1:30 left in the game, Laabs charged off right-guard, lowered his shoulders behind a wall of blockers to cross the plane for the score. A failed conversion run by Hoff left the Jays with a narrow 27-26 lead headed into the final minute of the battle.
The Bluejay defense remained steadfast on the ensuing Raider possession, finally managing to contain the rampant and effective Raider ground game. But Meier and company switched gears and went to the air, connecting on back-to-back passes and crossing the 50-yard line. Meier looked for a target on 3rd down with just 48 seconds left in the game, but Gruetzmacher showcased his ability to make plays on both sides of the ball, as he ran down and steamrolled Meier near midfield. Undaunted, Meier hooked up with Mikel Delzer on a slant to convert the long fourth down.
The Raiders continued to drive and were finally halted on the Merrill 14-yard line. With 2 seconds remaining on the clock, Meier took the snap, hesitated and downed the ball. Then with just a single second remaining, and down a single-point, Meier lined up for a 24-yard field goal. As the final second ticked off, Meier stepped forward and swung his leg true, hooking the ball just inside the left-upright for the Raider win, 29-27.
“We knew this would be a very close football game between two evenly matched teams,” comments Merrill head coach Nick Sturm. “We were the healthiest we had been in weeks in terms of injuries. We played well enough to win but we just didn’t pull it out. I was very happy with how hard the kids played. They fought until the very end. I can’t say enough how proud I am of their effort.
“But hats off to Medford. They scored some big runs on us, but the same was true for our offense. It was like a track meet early in the game, we would score a big run and so would they. Both offenses ran up and down the field!
“Ultimately, it came down to turnovers. We talked before the game and we knew the winner would come down to who won the turnover battle. Unfortunately, we had three turnovers and they had one.”
Despite the loss, the Jays won the yardage battle over the Raiders with 431 total yards, 413 on the ground, compared to Medford’s 389.
MER: 21 0 0 6- 27
MED: 14 6 6 3- 29
Passing: Drew Hoff (2/2, 18 yds). Rushing: Nevada Laabs (13/167, TD); Jake Collinsworth (10/42); Hoff (14/143); Braeden Dorn (6/34). Receiving: Scott Wallace (1/14); Ben Tabor (1/4). Defense: Jake Collinsworth (13s); Christian Kleinschmidt (6s); Jonathan Gruetzmacher (4s, TFL, sack); Tabor (4s, 1a); Elijah Emmer (2a, TFL); Nate Grefe (4s).
In looking back on the season, Sturm is optimistic and excited for the future.
“We really recovered well from a tough run of three games at the end of the regular season, to come out and play very well in our playoff game,”he said. “Hats off to our seniors for keeping it together through the end. I will miss this senior class. They were a great group to work with! It’s too bad the season had to end Friday night, but I wish them the best of luck in whatever path they choose.”
“We have a lot of young guys coming back next year with a strong sophomore class from this season. The off-season will tell how we shape up next year. It will take commitment from the kids to get better and stronger. I hope the kids go out and play multiple sports or commit to strength training. Our recipe for success next season will be based on the kids working hard and developing leadership skills. Next year we will need some leaders to step up for us. Leadership is a key trait we look for ever year.”