Bluejays are playoff eligible
And now for something completely different.
The Merrill football team had struggled all season to put together a strong second half of a game, building early leads in all but the Menomonie contest, yet dropping three of the games and hanging on for narrow wins in two others.
But the Bluejays scored all 20 points of their 20-7 triumph over Rhinelander in the second half of Friday’s home contest, becoming playoff eligible in the process.
“I was pleased that our seniors showed a lot of senior leadership,” MHS coach Tom Tourtillott said. “Key seniors put the team on their shoulders and said, ‘We’re going to get this done!’
“I was very pleased with the way we came out in the second half. We were hungry.”
Merrill evened up its record at 4-4 overall with the win and improved to 3-2 in the Great Northern Football Conference. That guarantees the Jays a .500 conference record, the minimum requirement to secure a playoff spot.
“It’s nice to be 4-4,” Tourtillott said. “0-4 was a long time ago. The kids looked at it as one game at a time. Our playoffs began right away. To the kids’ credit, they put in a lot of hard work. Our journey is not over.
“I wouldn’t say there is relief (getting to 4-4). Even when we were 0-4, everybody from the coaching staff to the guys in the locker room believed we were a way better team than our record showed, but it comes down to performance.
“Would we like to win games by 30 points and get everybody in for more playing time? Sure. Yet, the life lessons in dealing with adversity are going to serve us well this week and if we’re fortunate enough to get into the playoffs, and for the rest of these boys’ lives.”
But Merrill won’t be a playoff shoe-in without a win at Antigo (4-1, 5-2) this Friday. The last time the teams met, Merrill prevailed 19-14 in a monsoon in last October’s Level 1 playoffs.
“It should be a real ‘War on 64,’ ” Tourtillott said.
“We’re playoff eligible, definitely; a qualifier, no. We need to have five wins to guarantee it.”
The Jays trailed 7-0, but Nick Peterson almost evened it up on the kickoff return to open the second half, a trip by the kicker taking him down at the Rhinelander 45.
No matter, Merrill would use a nine-play push, capped by a 3-yard Coty Rajek blast up the middle.
The third play after the teams traded punts, Rhinelander fumbled and Grant Dahlke recovered at the Hodag 37. It took just seven plays for MHS to score on a 5-yard Austin Voigt run, 10:09 remaining in the game.
“They got a first down and then they had a different quarterback in when they fumbled the football,” Tourtillott said. “I don’t know why. It was definitely good to come up with a stop and have our offense capitalize and punch it in.”
Voigt finished with 159 yards rushing on 22 carries, pushing him to 953 yards on the season, 119.1 yards per game. That puts him above his pre-season goal of 100 ypg.
“Yes that’s an individual goal, but if you talked to every one of our offensive linemen, they would say that’s an important goal to them, too,” Tourtillott said. “I was very pleased with the line. It was great to have Jared Wardall back (from injury).”
Merrill then forced a 3-and-out, aided by a holding penalty, a gang tackle for a loss and a pressured overthrow on 3-and-15, and the Jays got the ball back at their 37.
MHS ground the clock down to 4:24 on the final TD drive, riding Voigt early then using Rajek late. Rajek closed out his best game with a half-yard blast on fourth down made it 20-7, and a miscue on the snap snuffed the PAT kick.
“(Rajek) definitely had more touches than all year,” Tourtillott said. “That was part of our game plan. Then on the third play of the game, their nose guard went out (with injury), so that gave us a shot of confidence in doing that. He ran hard.”
Peterson picked off a pass at midfield with 3:36 left to cut off a Rhinelander drive, and Ray Paul ended a desperation push by knocking the ball out of bounds on a 4th-down bomb with a minute to go.
The Hodags 7-0 first-half lead could have been worse. On the opening drive the Bluejays stopped them on a 4th-and-1 at the Merrill 10, an early indicator for the rest of the game.
“For the first time in a number of weeks, we didn’t give up any long runs or long plays,” Tourtillott said. “That was a huge advantage for us. We really believe that if we force a team to go the entire field, and don’t give up a cheapie, we’re not too bad on defense.”
Rhinelander managed its only score on a three-yard run with just 18 seconds left in the half.
The Jays ended with 250 rushing yards with additions from Alex Cordova (8-15) and Peterson (3-9).
Cordova completed 7-of-9 passes for 62 yards, to Paul (5-45), Peterson (1-10) and Ben Anderson (1-7).
The Hodags had 178 rushing yards, paced by Richard Klaver (15-109) and 25 passing yards.
Leading the Bluejay defense were: Paul (6 solos), Dahlke (5 s, 1 a, 1 FR), Alex Klug (3 s, 1a, 1 TFL), Lucas Olson (5 s).