By Nick Beversdorf
The Bluejay gridmen could not have ended the regular season in a more spectacular way. It was a game that was composed of two teams so equally matched that three-quarters of the game was a series of back-and-forth rushing plays with a few failed pass attempts.
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that all hope seemed lost when a Merrill fumble resulted in an Escanaba touchdown at 6:26 left in the fourth. But the Merrill Bluejays, determined to win the game, pulled out a series of plays that resulted in a spectacular touchdown and two-point conversion. Merrill ended up defeating Escanaba with a final score of 21-20.
Merrill got off to a strong start with Nevada Laabs sprinting in a 21-yard touchdown run, avoiding many tackles as he did so. Kole Meyer’s PAT was good for the extra point. Escanaba responded with a similar play at just 37 seconds left in the quarter with Logan Carroll scoring a touchdown off a 30-yard run. Addam Claes’s PAT was good to tie the game.
At 10:21 in the second quarter, Zach Mootz shot through a hole in the defensive line and ran in for a 40-yard touchdown run. Meyer’s PAT was no good, however. With 9:04 left in the third quarter, Breyden Papineau punched in a 14-yard touchdown run for Escanaba. Claes’s PAT was also no good, falling just short of the uprights. The score was again tied at 13-13.
It was halfway through the fourth quarter that things got real interesting. At 6:26 left, Merrill “fumbled” the ball (Escanaba’s Christopher LeMire took the ball away from Laabs when his forward progress seemed to be stopped) and ran for a 36-yard touchdown return.
Any lesser team could have taken that as a sign to give up, but the Merrill Bluejays chose to instead continue playing as hard as possible. After the return, Merrill started to drive the ball downfield as the minutes ticked away. After many rushing plays, two back-to-back Ben Tabor receptions brought the ball right to the Escanaba one-yard line. Braeden Dorn handily pushed his way into the end zone for a touchdown.
With the score at a precarious 20-19, Merrill could have just went for the PAT, tied the game, and hoped they would seal the deal in overtime. But instead, they went for the win, electing to go for a two-point conversion. Zach Mootz threw the ball far right to Hunter Hintze who leaped up into the air, catching it and landed back on his own two feet just inches from the sideline, good for the two points.
With Merrill in the lead, Escanaba started their drive but halfway down the field the ball was fumbled and recovered by Tabor, ending the game once Merrill took a knee.
“We played a very solid ball game,” comments head coach Nick Sturm. “We knew coming into this game that is was going to be tough. We played hard and even though we had quite a few penalties, we executed very well and battled back against what is a very good team. I am extremely proud of the team and especially proud of how they fought back in the last few minutes of the game.”
If there were ever two teams more evenly matched, it would be Merrill and Escanaba. Almost all of the plays were rushing plays, and what few passing attempts were made either were incomplete or resulted in a penalty. It wasn’t until the last few minutes that Merrill showed they could overcome, making solid rushing plays and explosive passes that culminated in their touchdown and two-point conversion.
Merrill had 226 rushing yards, 49 passing yards and 16 first downs compared to Escanaba’s 152 rushing yards, 18 passing yards and 17 first downs. Mootz and Laabs were the night’s top runners with 89 and 82 yards, respectively and each scoring one touchdown. Merrill held it defensively with 25 tackles – two for loss, two sacks and two recovered fumbles.
A special night for other reasons, it was Senior Night and both the senior football players and the senior band/color guard members were recognized. Also, the flag football participants and their coaches were recognized at halftime.
This win concludes the regular season for Merrill football. With this win, Merrill finishes in a three-way tie for first with Medford and Antigo in the Great Northern Conference at 5-1 and 6-3 overall. Merrill has qualified for the playoffs and will face #1 seed Rice Lake on Friday.
“Rice Lake is a very, very solid team. We need to come out ready and bring what we brought against Escanaba on Friday,” adds Sturm.
Rice Lake will host Merrill on Friday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m.
MRL: 7 6 0 8-21
ESC: 7 0 6 7-20
Rushing: Mootz (15 att, 89 yds, 1 TD); Laabs (13 att, 82 yds, 1 TD); Grefe (12 att, 37 yds); Dorn (6 att, 17 yds, 1 TD); Hintze (1 att, 1 yd).
Passing: Mootz (5/10, 49 yds).
Receiving: Tabor (3 rec, 44 yds); Hintze (2 rec, 5 yds).
Punting: Mootz (2, 49 yds, 24.5 avg).