Bluejay gridders cash in at Ashland
“We need to play every game, the we played in the second half tonight.”
Those were the words of Merrill varsity head coach Rob Klug last week, following a hard fought bout with Mississippi Valley Conference powerhouse LaCrosse-Central. Despite a 14-28 loss, the Bluejay defense came out in the second-half and not only consistently stalled one of the most potent offenses in the state, but the heel-digging defensive stand paved the way for the true potency of the Bluejay offense to be unleashed, something that had yet to be seen through the first three weeks of the season.
Despite a long haul to Ashland Friday night spanning nearly 8 hours round trip, the guys answered their gridiron guru’s call and then some, en route to a 35-14 drubbing of the Oredockers.
The game would prove to have many firsts for Bluejay football this season.
First and foremost, they drew first blood.
Following a first-quarter stalemate, junior Bluejay quarterback Caleb Dejong broke the game open when he broke loose on a 49-yard scoring scamper just over three minutes into to the second quarter. Caleb Novitch’s extra point gave Merrlll an early 7-0 lead. Ashland would answer in the waning minutes of the half with a 34-yard aerial connection between quarterback Jackson Bonneville and receiver Jaylen King. An ensuing two-point conversion set the ‘Dockers up 8-7 headed into the half.
Then came the ruckus, Bluejay style.
The ‘Jays came out in the second-half once again, firing on all cylinders.
Dejong found the zone twice in the third quarter; darting between the sticks on an 11-yard run near the 7:38 mark and returning to the zone again late in the third on a 1-yard plunge. Novitch was spot-on for both PAT’s to hand Merrill a comfortable 21-7 lead. The Oredockers proved they still had some moxie left for the fight, when they answered in the closing minutes on another scoring strike, this time from 78-yards.
Headed into the fourth, the Merrill D decided enough was enough.
They not only stifled the Ashland offense but claimed a pick in the process, thanks to the opportunistic play of inside linebacker Mason Vandervelde.
Dejong and the Bluejay offense would proceed to run wild, literally.
In keeping the docker D on their heels, Dejong cashed in on 6 and 37 yard scoring runs to seal the deal for the varsity squad’s first win of the season.
“Oh were the kids pumped afterward!” comments Klug.
“They realized they had finally put it all together for a win and the scoreboard showed their efforts. They played with confidence on both sides of the ball, they knew they could do it and they did it.”
When asked of what was said at halftime to set off such an explosive second-half performance Friday night, Klug’s response was humbled.
“Not much really, we didn’t talk to the kids about anything different than we have all-season. We knew their potential and we knew they could win this. We just reminded them of the fundamentals; do your job at your position and stick with your blocks,”
The only real change was mixing up the playboook a bit, and that apparently paid off for the Jays.
“We threw some formations and plays at Ashland in the second-half which they hadn’t seen yet and it really worked well for us. Our offensive line did a great job sticking with their blocks and Caleb (Dejong) made some good reads to get some yards on the ground. The fullback position plays a big role in our offense and Eddie (Collinsworth) came up big for us. Ashland just didn’t respond very well to the changes we made. They were so focused on shutting down Eddie, that opened up some big play opportunities for Caleb.”
Last week, the Jay set a season miletone with 306 offensive yards.
Friday night, the guys upped the ante with 384 yards of total offense.
Dejong claimed 275 of those yards, with a season-high 239 on the ground on just 25 carries and 3 of 6 through the air for 36 yards. Caleb Timm would prove to be Dejong’s go-to target; hauling in all three receptions.
Collinsworth turned in yet another stellar ground-pounding performance with 67 yards on 13 carries, complemented by junior scatback Nik Zastrow (6 att./30 yds)
Defensively, inside linebacker Mason Vandervelde came up big for the Jays with a team-leading 7 tackles, tackle for loss and a fourth-quarter interception. Defensive tackle Dawson Dengel anchored the defensive line with 5 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss along with defensive end Zachary Iribarren with 7 tackles. Timm added another 5 tackles, respectively.
The Jays will look to capitalize on their success Saturday, when they host the Lakeland Thunderbirds for Homecoming.
“We will be loooking at taking on another spread offense,” Klug adds of the T-Birds.
“Their quarterback (Michael Ouimette) is pretty athletic, he can run and throw the ball very well. We will have to keep our eyes on him, keep his passing windows tight and put some pressure on him.”
Merrill currently stands at 4th in the GNC (1-2) thanks to a first-place tie between Medford and Mosinee. The Thunderbirds are ranked 5th (1-3) behind Ashland.
Saturday’s game time is set for 1:30 p.m. at Jay Stadium.