The Lakeland Union High School football team had already clinched a playoff birth when they faced the Wausau East Lumberjacks on Friday at Incredible Bank field in Minocqua, but they in no way let off the gas in the season finale. In fact, they put the pedal to the medal. Out of five Thunderbird touchdowns on Friday night, four of them came on plays longer than 20 yards, and the big yardage gains paved the way for a 34-26 victory on senior night.
“Tonight our explosive plays really set the tone for us offensively,” Lakeland head coach Dan Barutha said. “We put the ball in the air quite a bit and we had big chunk plays over the top and that was something that was missing really in the middle stretch and really throughout the course of the season. We had big plays, but they wouldn’t be big scoring plays.”
On Friday the big plays put points on the board, and it stared early.
On the Thunderbirds’ first drive, after two first downs, running back Erik Albertus tuned the corner and ran 53 yards into the end zone to put Lakeland up 6-0.
But Wausau East answered back. After leading them down the field with some long pass plays, Lumberjack quarter back Matt Heinrich ran a one yard quarterback keeper and Caleb Gruszynski kicked an extra point to give East a 7-6 lead.
The Lumberjacks then picked off Lakeland quarterback Michael Ouimette on the next drive, which set up a 41 yard touchdown run from Wausau East running back Donovan Leverette, and after another Gruszynski extra point, Lakeland found themselves down 14-6 at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter was then a slug fest, with each team going back and forth at each other without giving up a score. That is until Lakeland quarterback Ouimette found Chase Hunt for an eight yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds left in the first half. Ouimette ran a quarterback keeper in for the two point conversion and the game was tied at 14.
Lakeland seemed to have taken over momentum, but in the final seconds of the half, East took back control. Heinrich hit Sam Moses for a 39 yard touchdown bomb and Lakeland went into the locker room down 20-14.
The T-Birds, though, were not shaken, nor were they going to roll over.
“The final message coming out after halftime was ‘guys, we can’t control some of this stuff going against us right now,” Barutha said. “We’ve hit adversity, but we got to have championship body language. We got to be able to get back to Lakeland football. We had to remind the guys Lakeland football is not only championship body language. Lakeland football is picking each other up, great communication, great enthusiasm, great passion, and just an absolute tenacity when you step foot between the white lines to do your job and excel at it.”
The T-Birds took that message to heart when they took the field for the second half.
Wausau East tried some trickery to begin the third quarter and attempted an onside kick, but Lakeland’s Dwight Miesbauer got his hands on it and recovered it at mid field.
The Thunderbirds then picked up two first downs before Ouimette hit Cody Wolfe for a 21 yard touchdown pass. Ouimette then ran in the two point conversion and Lakeland took the lead 22-20.
According to Barutha, recovering the onside kick was a major turning point in the game.
“We go down and we score there and had they gotten the ball and they went down and scored now you’re talking we’re down by two touchdowns instead of tying the ball game up, going for two and taking the lead,” he said. “And so from that standpoint that was huge.”
Later in the third, the Thunderbirds went to the air again and added to their lead, this time Ouimette hit Jack Hartzheim for a 42 yard pass play and the T-Birds went up 28-20.
Wausau East would not go away, however, and to start the fourth quarter they put a scoring drive together that was capped off by a one yard Leverette run to make the score 28-26.
Lakeland’s defense, though, stepped up and stopped the two point conversion, but it took some tenacity. On the first try Wausau East was successful, but the two point conversion was called back due to a Lumberjack block in the back. Then Lakeland stopped the second attempt, but that was reversed due to a T-Bird personal foul. Finally the Thunderbird defense stopped the third two point conversion attempt and kept the 28-26 lead.
“Our guys just battle and they don’t quit and they keep coming at you,” Barutha said.
Lakeland clung to that two point lead for most of the final quarter, and they almost lost their grip. At one point they fumbled a punt snap and East got the ball at Lakeland’s 34 yard line. But after giving up one first down the T-Bird defense bore down and turned the Lumberjacks away on downs.
This set up another big time play from the Thunderbirds, and fittingly, on senior night, it was senior Michael Ouimette’s pass to senior Chase Hunt for an 84 yard touchdown pass that put the T-Birds on top for good at 34-26.
Wausau East had one more punch to throw, however. On their final drive they drove to the Lakeland 26 yard line, but the T-Bird defense caused and recovered a fumble and then the offense ran out the clock to seal the deal.
Barutha said the strong performance from his elder statesmen, as displayed on Friday night, is a big reason they are going to the playoffs.
“This season is directly tied to the positive senior leadership that we have had in the program,” Barutha said. “I look at our seniors and I look at the buy in that our seniors have had, especially the four year guys, and the guys who put in the time. They put in the hours, they put in time taking leadership class in the spring, they put in the time to learn leadership skills, they put in the time to be able to develop relationships with their teammates and hold each other accountable, not because it was cool, but because it was the best thing for the team. I look at that. That is the difference here this year from other seasons.”
Lakeland, which finished the season at 6-3, will face Menomonie in the first round of the playoffs on Friday at 7 p.m. on the campus of UW-Stout.
And Friday night’s win against East, which was a contest of big battles and big plays, will go a long ways towards giving them the preparation they’ll need in the post-season.
“Finishing was really critical and being able to launch ourselves and propel ourselves with confidence into the playoffs was really important as well,” Barutha said. “Scheme and technique and all those things are very important, but a vast underutilized thing in terms of stepping out on the field is playing with confidence and preparation and our guys because of the different ways that we’ve won the last three weeks, counting tonight, our guys have really gained and grown in their confidence to be able to step up to the plate with anybody.”
Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]