Merrill gridmen seal playoff deal with Antigo triumph
Antigo struck first in Friday’s regular-season closing football contest, but the host Bluejays made the Red Robins play catch-up from there. A power drive after a fumble recovery and 90-yard pick-6 provided the final distance in Merrill’s 35-21 triumph.
“It was a great win,” MHS coach Nick Sturm said. “The kids competed in a see-saw battle. You’ve got to be happy to pull out a win against a good football team. My heart was pumping.
“The kids were very much excited. They were very happy with their performance, as they should be. I hope this gives them some confidence as we head into the playoffs.”
Merrill (the #6 seed) hits the long road for La Crosse Central (#3) for Friday’s 7:00 p.m. WIAA Level 1 contest. The game will be played at Memorial Stadium at UW-LC.
“If we play well, we’re going to have a good opportunity,” Sturm said. “It comes down to our preparation this week. I think we match up well with them, so we’ll see what happens. We’ve come a long way since the first, second game. I’m proud of what the kid have done.”
The win over Antigo put Merrill at 4-2, in third place in the GNC Football Conference, a game behind Medford and Mosinee. The Jays beat the Red Raiders and lost to the Indians, but a defeat to 3-3 Rhinelander dropped them out of a first-place tie.
The Red Robins, another 3-3 team, hung tough after a pair of late first quarter scores had given Merrill a 14-7 lead. Alex Klug blasted one yard on the first and Matt Rekowski cut back and broke several tackles on a 34-yard dash with just :05 left. Tyler Schmidt’s power PAT made up for a missed kick.
Antigo scored on an 8-yard pass from Jake Zabrowski to Matt Wolter midway through the second quarter. The visitors reached the Merrill 22 late in the half, but Klug shook up Wolter on a scramble and Brandon Bartz snagged a tipped interception on the next play to kill the drive.
Bartz came up big to start the second half, too, returning the opening kick-off for a touchdown.
“We talked all week we thought we had an opportunity to return a kickoff, and low and behold, it worked,” Sturm said. “Our guys did a good job blocking and Brandon found a seam and hit it.”
With 7:23 left in the third quarter, Antigo slipped ahead 21-20. But a six-play, 33-yard drive capped with a two-yard Alex Klug blast and Matt Rekowski two-pointer made it 28-21 with 8:48 remaining in the game. Bartz had pounced on a fumble to start that chance, and Eli Knoblock recovered a Peterson fumble two plays later to keep possession.
Soon the Red Robins were on the cusp again, reaching the Merrill 13-yard line, but Ty Grunenwald’s 90-yard interception return and Nick Peterson’s kick virtually sewed up the win.
“When we had to make plays, we did,” Sturm said. “Good football teams find ways to win football games and the kids are starting to figure that out.”
The Red Robins battled to the end, but so did the Bluejays. Antigo picked up a first down on the Merrill 6 with 2:06 to go, but MHS cut it off with a Gabe Nelles’ stuff, a Ben Hintze’ tackle for a loss, a Peterson’ pass break-up and a Hintze’ interception on consecutive plays.
The Jays had powered 85 yards on their second score.
“We felt like we were going to be able to move the ball on Antigo,” Sturm said. “Antigo did some things different against us. They spread out their front, and we took advantage up the middle. We were able to move the ball down the field.”
Merrill pounded out 233 yards rushing, led by Peterson (16-120), Klug (10-64, 2 TD), Rekowksi (2-39, 1 TD), Bartz (2-5) and Nick Hoffmann (2-5).
Peterson completed 3-of-4 passes for 24 yards to Jake Anderson (1-15), Mootz (1-5) and Grunenwald (1-4).
Antigo gained 350 rushing yards and 60 passing yards.
Defensively, the Jays were paced by: Hintze (14 solos, 1 assist, 1 TFL, 1 sack, 1 int.); Tyler Schmidt (11 s, 1 a, 2 TFL, 1 FR); Grunenwald (9 s, 2 a, 1 int.); Stockowitz (4 s, 1 a, 2 TFL, 1 sa, 1 int., 1 cause int., 1 PBU); Bartz (6 s, 1 a, 1 int., 1 FR); Austin Bonnell (2 s, 2 a, 1 TFL, 1 FR); Rekowski (5 s, 1 TFL); Nick Mootz (5 s, 2 a, 1 FC); Gabe Nelles (3 s); Klug (1 s, 1 a, 1 TFL, 1 sa).