It’s officially official. For the first time this decade, the Lakeland football team is heading to the WIAA football playoffs.
“It’s a great feeling to be in the playoffs for the first time in 10 years,” coach Dan Barutha said. “Of all the teams that made it this year, we had the fourth longest drought of all 224 schools.”
The Thunderbirds will participate in the WIAA Division 3 playoffs. They will play as the eight seed against top-seeded Menomonie.
The Mustangs come in with a 8-1 record overall, 6-1 in the Big Rivers conference. Last time out, they defeated Eau Claire Memorial 28-14 on Friday, Oct. 18.
“(The Mustangs) play up in their conference quite a bit,” Barutha said. “There are multiple Division One schools they compete against in the Big Rivers Conference and that is a strong conference from top-to-bottom. Weekly competition they face helps breed their success.”
The only blemish on Menomonie’s schedule came Oct. 4 at Superior. That was where they lost by a point, 13-14.
Offensively, they average 25 points per game. Defensively, they haven’t given up more than 18 points in one game. In their wins, Menomonie wins by an average margin of 22 points.
Menomonie’s big highlight win came at Lake Mills, winning 34-10 on Aug. 22. It is Lake Mills only loss thus far.
“(Menomonie) is consistently among the best teams in the state in Division 2 because of their culture of success set by (head)?coach (Joe) LaBuda over the past 30-plus years,” Barutha said. “His record speaks for itself and their community support and buy-in is incredible.”
It is a potent rushing attack by the Mustangs. One rusher they like to use is Thomas Poplawski. Against Lake Mills, he ran for 87 yards and a touchdown.
Another runner they use is Will Ockler. On Aug. 29, he ran for 209 yards and three touchdowns against Holmen.
The other big running back in their system is Devauntaye Parker. He ran for 71 yards and two touchdowns against Lake Mills.
They don’t throw too often, but when they do, they do it for success.
Both Ryan Kahl and Tyler Werner combined for 20 of 25 for 328 yards and three touchdowns at Chippewa Falls on Sept. 6.
At receiver, Davis Barthen leads the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He’s caught nine passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns.
Brock Thornton has chipped in eight receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown.
It’s a big offense that the Thunderbirds need to be prepared for.
“They suit close to 100 guys and the added depth shows in their personnel packages and number of different units they have for special teams and offense specifically,” Barutha said. “It’s hard to make those guys tired because they rotate personnel every play so there’s a limited chance to wear them out that way.”
Lakeland comes into the game 6-3 overall, 3-3 in conference. Last time out, they defeated Wausau East 34-26 on Friday, Oct. 18.
The Thunderbirds come in hot, winners of three in a row and four out of five. They will bring that momentum with them to Menomonie.
“There is no substitute for game experience and we can fall back on moments and situations over the last half of the season to draw motivation, lessons, and proper reactions to situations Friday night,” Barutha said.
The highlight win came in a double overtime victory at Cudahy on Aug. 23 and at Antigo on Sept. 20. Cudahy got their season off to a good start and the Antigo game started their hot streak.
Lakeland hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2009.
“We don’t have players with playoff experience, but we have many players with big game experience and the playoffs parallel the big games our guys have played in,” Barutha said.
Being an eight seed, the Thunderbirds will have to play at their best to bring down the Mustangs. It will be all hands on deck and a total team effort.
“To beat Menomonie, we cannot be intimidated by their history, success, track record, or roster size,” Barutha said. “We’ve identified the focus, work ethic, attention to detail, and discipline needed every day in practice, preparation, and on game day.”
One player who has sparked this win streak is Erik Albertus. In four games this season, he’s averaging 108 rush yards per game and has three touchdowns thus far.
Quarterback Michael Ouimette continued his good season last Friday against Wausau East. He threw for 261 yards and four touchdowns. He added in 79 yards on the ground.
On the season, Ouimette has rushed for 759 yards and 13 touchdowns. Adding in the 12 through the air, Ouimette has 25 total touchdowns.
Chase Hunt had a big game against Wausau East, bringing his season totals to 508 yards and four touchdowns. Cody Wolfe caught a touchdown pass for the third game in a row, bringing his season total to four.
“We will leave no stone unturned for Friday,” Barutha said.
The Thunderbirds play the Mustangs for the right to move on in the playoffs. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at Don and Nona Williams Football Stadium on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie.
Brett LaBore may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]