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Raiders return to form, clinch another GNC title

It was a back-to-the-basics week for the Medford Raiders and the refocusing in practice paid off Friday with a satisfying 24-7 win at Rhinelander that clinched back-to-back undefeated football seasons in the Great Northern Conference.

The Raiders didn’t flinch when Rhinelander took a 7-6 lead on the first play of the second quarter as Hodags beat a Medford blitz and got a 71-yard touchdown pass from Quinn Lamers to Caleb Olcikas. The offense responded with a gamechanging 17-play, 80-yard, seven-minute drive that ended with the first of Emett Grunwald’s three rushing touchdowns.

Grunwald’s big 57-yard scoring run early in the third quarter created some distance and a 91-yard, 13-play drive in the fourth quarter finished off the Hodags who, like Medford, came into the game at 5-0 in actual GNC games played and, technically, 6-0 in the conference after both teams received forfeits from Lakeland in the previous two weeks. The loss was Rhinelander’s first of the year while Medford bounced back from a non-conference loss the previous week at Rice Lake that filled the opening left by the Lakeland forfeit.

“(Rice Lake) showed us that we need to get it right,” senior lineman Brody Doberstein said. “We need to get the fundamentals right and then we win games.”

Better blocking in this game led to 353 rushing yards and 393 total yards of offense. The linemen also took things over on the defensive side as the game progressed, harassing Lamers almost every time he dropped back to pass in the second half and swallowing up the Hodags’ top running backs, Olcikas (10 carries for 41 yards) and Cayden Neri (five carries for zero yards).

“After we gave up that touchdown, we were down by one point and we just told our guys we were still in this,” Grunwald said. “They can’t break you. They can’t get in your head. We went back to the basics and did our jobs.”

The conference title is the sixth Medford has won or shared in nine years. Each title is unique and this one will be remembered because of the injury and COVID-related adversity that sprung up along the way.

“We lost Blaine (Seidl) there in week three and lost Jarod (Jochimsen) right away,” head coach Ted Wilson said. “They’re two really good players. Blaine is an all-conference, all-state type of kid and Jarod’s probably not far behind him. Definitely all-conference and maybe allstate himself. To lose two kids of that quality is pretty big. Then we’ve got more injuries and kids quarantined, so there was a lot of adversity that went into this year.

“We didn’t necessarily play the greatest against Ashland but found a way,” he added. “We didn’t play the greatest against Rice Lake either, but we were in the game. Then all of a sudden we were out of the game. Ups and downs are good. Those are the kinds of life lessons that stick with you, to fight through adversity and how to find a way.”

“It’s huge,” senior lineman Joe Gierl said. “I mean we don’t have state so this is our only really big championship this year and we pulled through.”

“It means everything,” senior safety/ tight end Colton Surek said. “We weren’t sure if we were even going to have a season this year, so I knew for a fact that I was going to put everything I had into this season and make sure we ended up with a championship.”

Getting it done

Medford caught the game’s first break when Hodag Joe Schneider muffed Logan Baumgartner’s first punt and Aiden Gardner outfought two Hodags to recover it at the 25-yard line. Three plays later, Gardner got outside to his right and dove to the pylon for an 8-yard touchdown that gave the Raiders a 6-0 lead just 2:20 into the game.

The Raiders’ next possession, however, ended quickly when Lamers stripped Gardner of the football and recovered it on Medford’s 24. But on fourth and six, defensive back Carson Church broke up a pass into the end zone intended for Jacques Tulowitzsky to end that Rhinelander threat.

Baumgartner’s next punt went 63 yards but barely bounced into the end zone for a touchback and three plays later, Lamers and Olcikas hooked up on their big strike.

The Raiders regrouped and went on a typical Medford drive. Nate Retterath got the needed yard on fourth and one from their own 29. Peyton Kuhn had an 18-yard run and Gardner had an 11-yard burst in the 80-yard march that ended with Grunwald’s 4-yard scoring run to the right side. The two-point pass was intercepted, keeping it a 12-7 game with 4:12 left in the first half. The Raiders stopped two Hodag drives after that to keep it that way, including a Carson Kleist interception in the end zone of last-play Hail Mary.

“We needed that momentum,” Gierl said of Medford’s scoring drive. “That drive was huge for our whole momentum throughout the whole rest of the game.”

The Hodags opened the third quarter with a 36-yard connection from Lamers to Travis Towne that put the ball at Medford’s 24. After a penalty put Rhinelander behind the chains, Kuhn smacked Neri for no gain on fourth and four at the 18. Four plays later, Grunwald started left, found a crease and cutback to his right and sprinted to the end zone, avoiding one would-be tackler inside the 10 to give Medford an 18-7 lead with 7:57 left in the third.

“It felt great to break one loose tonight,” Grunwald said. “At the end of the run, I could see him coming from the corner of my eye. He was on my tail. I just stopped and juked and he went by me. Abe Miller, Peyton Kuhn and Tukker Schreiner had great blocks. There was a wall, easy to find the hole and break it loose.”

“It was well blocked, then he made a nice cutback, broke a tackle and was off to the races,” Wilson said. “Then he made the last guy miss. That was the same play we were running most of the second half. It just kept getting bigger and bigger.”

While the defense took over, the offense waited until the fourth quarter to put it away with another long scoring drive. The key plays were Grunwald’s 17-yard pick up on third and two from the Raiders’ 13 and a 29-yard pass from Baumgartner to a wide-open Surek on third and six from their own 34. Grunwald capped the 13-play drive with a 12yard burst up the middle with 6:42 left.

“Those offensive linemen really found

See MEDFORD on page 3 a way to keep their feet moving and started making holes,” Wilson said. “The holes started getting a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger and more and more yards started coming. That’s kind of the way it works when you run the ball like we do. Teams are all excited and jacked up when you first face them that they’re going to shut your run down and they have all kinds of guys in the box. But as the night goes, those holes start getting a little bit better and little bit bigger. That’s kind of the grind.”

Grunwald had his biggest night of the season, piling up 167 yards on 22 carries. It was a grind for Medford’s leading rusher on the season, Gardner, but he still gained 86 yards on 20 attempts. Kuhn had some key carries and gained 67 yards on nine attempts.

The Raiders held Rhinelander to 62 rushing yards, but the key was limiting Rhinelander’s damage through the air. The Hodags, and Lamers in particular, thrive on big plays. Tyler Kapitz held their top receiver, Jackson Labs, to two catches for 13 yards. Take away the 71and 36-yard plays and the Hodags’ eight other completions gained a total of 54 yards.

“I was just focused on not letting any big plays happen and just sticking with him,” Kapitz said.

“I thought for the most part, when you have guys there and guys aren’t running completely free that’s important,” Wilson said. “They’re going to catch some every once in a while and that’s OK. As long as you have guys in coverage, they’re close and the other team’s making contested catches on you, I think that’s good. Tyler has proven in the last couple weeks that he looks like probably our best cover guy. He did a great job on (Labs). That was pretty impressive.”

“I thought the defense did amazing,” Surek said. “We stopped them when we needed to. We pushed through no matter how tired we were.”

“Rhinelander’s a great team,” Grunwald said. “They were undefeated in the conference. It felt great to beat them and be conference champs back-to-back. We owe it to our offensive linemen and our defense did a great job, holding them to one touchdown.”

Medford’s season will continue this Friday at 7 p.m. with the start of the WIAA’s two-week playoff. The Raiders landed in Division 2 and, as a oneseed, were placed in a tough, four-team bracket that includes second-seeded New Richmond, third-seeded Ashland and fourth-seeded Rice Lake.

That means Medford and Rice Lake will meet for the second time in three weeks, this time at Raider Field. The Warriors are 2-5 but riding a lot of momentum after beating Medford 27-6 and Wausau West 26-23 in successive weeks.

“They’re tough,” Wilson said. “We’ll look at the film and see what we can try to improve upon and try to put our best foot forward here at home.”

Friday’s winners in the bracket will play each other on Thursday, Nov. 19.

Raider Peyton Kuhn finds a hole between blocks by Colton Surek (46) and Dalton Krug (55) and gains 5 yards on the first play of Friday’s fourth quarter.MATT FREY/THE STAR NEWS

Medford’s Carson Kleist intercepts a hail mary pass to the end zone by Rhinelander’s Quinn Lamers on the final play of Friday’s first half. Carson Church (82) and Nate Doriot (10) also defend the play.MATT FREY/THE STAR NEWS