Homecoming rally helps Merrill gridmen keep it exciting
Little by little, the Merrill football boys are growing together as a team.
Alex Cordova’s 32-yard field goal with just 24 seconds remaining gave Merrill a 35-33 edge in Saturday’s Homecoming game, the first time this season the Bluejays won after allowing an opponent to take the lead in the second half of a game.
The Jays have jumped out to an early lead in all but the Menomonie contest, but the only previous wins came when they were able to hold off furious comeback attempts from both Lakeland and Ashland.
Now MHS has entered the next phase of its development, improving from an 0-4 start to 3-4 in the process, including 2-2 in the GNC football conference with 1-3 Rhinelander (1-6 overall) on the docket.
“Obviously, experience is key,” Merrill coach Tom Tourtillott said. “The more you play varsity football and have been in pressure situations, the better chance you have at succeeding. I’m proud of the kids for not stopping and for believing. We just have to be a little better in the second half.
“I’m very proud of the way they battled back. We’re definitely learning how to play the game. We just have to learn to do it more consistently.”
Despite the Onalaska comeback, Tourtillott enjoyed the outcome.
“I thought it was a pretty good culmination of a very great Homecoming week at Merrill High School,” he said. “We talked about playing 48 minutes of football and having a lifetime of memories and I thought that happened Saturday.”
Nick Peterson put the series well in motion with a huge return of Onalaska’s kick-off to the Hilltopper 35.
“The key to that return was two blocks by Brandan Wiebe,” Tourtillott said. “He completely pancaked the guy he was responsible for, then kept going. The second block sprung Peterson.”
Merrill pushed its customary early advantage to 26-7 on a Coty Rajek one-yard blast up the middle with 9:00 left in the first half. Rajek’s score came one play after quarterback Cordova tossed an option pitch at the last second to Austin Voigt for a 31-yard dash to the Onalaska one.
But that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be close at the end.
Merrill still held a 32-19 lead with 10:19 left in the fourth quarter after an incredible doink kick from Cordova. The ball landed on the crossbar, hung there for a tense millisecond, then bounced over the bar for a 38-yard field goal.
But Onalaska immediately converted a 1st-and-25 situation after returning the ensuing kickoff to midfield. Running back Phillip Stuhr took a flare pass 65 yards for the score with 9:37 still left on the clock. A slip on the PAT kick left it 32-25.
Merrill mounted a clock-killing drive, ultimately punting to the Onalaska 11 with 3:23 remaining. The Hilltoppers collected five consecutive first downs-discounting two illegal procedure penalties-and scored a 31-yard pass from Zach Schmidt to Clinton Rihn, the third wide receiver screen on the drive. Merrill preserved a 32-31 lead when the 2-point pass fell incomplete, but pass interference gave the visitors a second shot they converted with a Jon Jandrt run.
Just 1:54 remained when Peterson picked up the kickoff he fumbled and dashed to the Hilltopper 35. An 8-yard pass to Ray Paul and three Voigt runs pushed the ball to the 14, setting up Cordova’s third field goal of the game.
“I’m very proud of the way Alex kicked that ball in not very good field conditions,” Tourtillott said.
Cordova also kicked a 17-yard field goal with 7 seconds left in the half.
Austin Voigt racked up 213 yards on 38 carries, scoring Merrill’s first three TD’s on runs of 24, 4 and 4 yards in the opening 12:03.
The Jays ended up with 244 yards with help from Rajek (9-25) and Cordova (3-6). Cordova completed 9-of-20 passes for 81 yards to Paul (6-47), Alec Oestreich (1-18) and Peterson (1-16).
The visitors rushed for 140 yards led by Rihn (5-103), but Schmidt hit on 18-of-29 passes for 357 yards to Rihn (8-94), Garrett Hulse (6-88), Jandrt (3-87) and Stuhr (1-65).
“We hit four of our five offensive goals,” Tourtillott said. “It was our best offensive all-around game. I’m extremely proud of Grant Collins and Alex Ruge, and Garrett Pagel had his best game as a blocker.
“Unfortunately we only achieved on defensive goals and one special teams goal. It just goes to show we’re inconsistent.
“I said before the game that quarterback is very good. We tried to bring pressure all over, but we couldn’t get there. We’ve given up a lot of big plays all season long. If we’re going to be a playoff team, we’ve got to stop giving up the long plays.”