Raiders face Hodags to decide Great Northern championship
WEEK 7 FOOTBALL
When Wisconsin’s 2020 high school football season started on Labor Day, there was excitement to get going and also uncertainty as to how it would end.
Friday marks week seven and the end of the truncated regular season. Some teams didn’t make it to the finish line. Others had interruptions. Few, if any, conferences got all of their initially scheduled games in.
But there is still football being played this weekend and that, in itself, is a victory.
Barring any last-minute setbacks, the Great Northern Conference will make it to the finish line Friday with only three canceled games and as true of a championship game as you might find in the state when Medford visits Rhinelander for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
Both teams had a recent game with Lakeland canceled due to COVID protocols, so they both come into Friday’s showdown with perfect conference marks. Technically they are both 6-0 in the GNC, though Medford lost its re- placement game last week at Rice Lake 27-6, while Rhinelander won its replacement game with Stratford on Oct. 23 in a thriller 29-27.
For the second straight year, the two teams will come into their GNC matchup with perfect records, though last year’s game, a decisive 39-14 win for Medford, was held much earlier in the season.
Rhinelander is arguably riding more momentum into Friday’s contest with three fairly large margins of victory and the thrilling win over Stratford in their last four contests. They have had the magic touch in all three of their close games, also beating Antigo 21-18 in double overtime in their opener and rallying from an early deficit to beat short-handed Mosinee 28-21 in week two.
“They’re good,” Medford head coach Ted Wilson said. “They’re really good. Just like always, we have to take care of the ball, stop the run and make sure we tackle and try to do what we do on offense.”
Offensively, Rhinelander has produced a respectable run/pass balance, averaging 203 yards per game on the ground and 101 yards per game through the air. On the ground, Caleb Olcikas (483 yards, four touchdowns) and Cayden Neri (413 yards, six touchdowns) have done most of the damage with senior fullback Walker Hartman (152 yards, three touchdowns) adding some thump as well.
Neri hasn’t played since getting injured early in a 26-7 week-four win over Ashland and was averaging 103.2 yards per game. Olcikas had a monster 197yard game against Stratford, when he averaged 8.2 yards on his 24 carries.
The Raiders will also be tested by athletic senior quarterback Quinn Lamers, who has completed 38 of 73 passes for 678 yards and nine touchdowns with four interceptions. His top target is Jackson Labs, who has a knack for the big play. He’s averaged 25.2 yards on his 13 receptions and has three touchdowns.
“He’s a good route runner,” Wilson said of Labs. “He’s really good at finding the ball and adjusting to it. He does really well with that. Lamers throws some up to him and the kid catches them.”
Defensively, the Hodags have improved since allowing 297 yards to Antigo and 238 passing yards to Mosinee in week two. They held Hayward to 167 total yards in a 42-6 win Friday. In five true conference games, they’ve allowed 133 rushing yards and 99 passing yards per game.
Medford enters the game as easily the league’s best defense, allowing a total of 154 yards per conference game. In five league games, the Raiders have allowed just 47 rushing yards and 107 passing yards per contest. The offense also is by far the league’s best at 391 yards per game, but the Raiders will admit it hasn’t quite hit on all cylinders the last three weeks and especially last Friday at Rice Lake against the best defense they’ve seen this year by far.
“I know the final score maybe doesn’t look like it, but we just couldn’t find a way to make a big play when we needed to,” Wilson said of Friday’s defeat. “We were about a block away. After reviewing the film, some of that is just missing blocks or not sustaining blocks long enough. We have to work on getting better.”
A win for Medford would give the Raiders back-to-back GNC titles and the program’s sixth in nine years. A win for Rhinelander would give the Hodags their first.
As of mid-week, the only other Taylor County game this week features Gilman (6-0) visiting McDonell Central (4-2) today, Thursday, at 6 p.m. in a rematch of a Central Wisconsin West eight-man matchup three weeks ago. Gilman won that game 44-8.
The Pirates were forced to find a new opponent after Newman Catholic, the state’s top-ranked eight-man team in the state, announced Sunday it has canceled the remainder of its season. Clayton pulled out of a planned matchup with the Macks.
Flambeau was supposed to visit the Rib Lake-Prentice Hawks for a 7 p.m. kickoff in Prentice. On Tuesday, the Falcons were forced to pull out of that matchup, leaving the Hawks looking for a new opponent.
The Hawks have gone 1-2 in three straight close Lakeland Conference games and have yet to play a home game this fall.