There is nothing better than rivalry week, a week in the season where two rivals go at it for one game. That will be the case when Lakeland heads to Rhinelander tonight.
The Thunderbirds travel to Rhinelander to take on the Hodags in both team’s first conference game. The Thunderbirds look to capitalize on their 2-0 start.
Rhinelander is 2-0 as well, and is debuting a new turf field at Mike Webster Stadium. It’s also the fifth playing of the Northwoods Axe Game, a series Lakeland leads 3-1 over he Hodags.
“Being able to execute the little things (is key),” coach Dan Barutha said. “This is going to be an emotional game, its an emotional week.”
It’s only the third time since 2006 which Lakeland has started 2-0 to begin the year.
The Hodags also come into today’s with a pair of lopsided wins. They defeated Prescott 21-0 and Tomahawk 48-6 in their first two games of the season.
The strength of their team comes from running back Drake Martin. He was first team all-conference a year ago and leads the team in rushing this season. He will be on the Thunderbirds’ minds.
“He’s strong as an ox, he’s a tremendous player, great player, great kid and a really good representation of their program,” Barutha said.
So far this season, Martin has 36 attempts for 277 yards and five touchdowns. Last week against Tomahawk, he had 176 yards rushing and four touchdowns.
Starting at the quarterback position is Quinn Lamers. So far he’s gone 7 for 17 for 233 yards and three touchdowns on the year.
One other player to watch for the Hodags is Peyton Erikson. He has three receptions for 126 yards and one touchdown and 14 attempts for 61 yards and a touchdown.
The Hodags’ defense is stout. They have allowed six points all season and will certainly want to stop the Thunderbirds’ spread attack.
“You’re playing your closest conference opponent, both teams are trying to start 1-0 in conference,” Barutha said. “Our guys have to be able to control their emotions, have a lot of positivity have a lot of communication and pick each other up.”
Erikson is tied for team lead with nine tackles, along with Ben Sinclair. Erikson also leads the team with two sacks.
The Thunderbirds come into the game with a little bit of a different story.
While Rhinelander has two wins by a large margin of victory, Lakeland has two wins in close, thrilling games.
The Thunderbirds first win came against Cudahy in two overtimes, 35-33. They then beat Northland Pines 32-27 on Aug. 30 with a game-sealing interception with under a minute to play.
Quarterback Michael Ouimette will be one of the big factors in the game. He can beat teams in two ways — with his arm or with his legs.
He showed off both against Cudahy with five total touchdowns and more than 300 yards of total offense. Against Northland Pines, it was mostly his legs as he ran for more than 100 yards and two touchdowns.
Zach Hayes is another featured player for the Thunderbirds. He scored twice in the Northland Pines game and can either catch or run.
“Zach has great hands and Zach has great speed. He’s a natural athlete, he’s very shifty and dynamic when he runs, that creates elusiveness out in the open field and that also creates route running ability for him,”?Barutha said.
The Thunderbirds’ defense hasn’t been perfect, but has come up with stops when they needed to. Chase Hunt had the game-sealing interception late against Northland Pines.
But the biggest question for the Thunderbirds is whether or not they can slow down Martin. They allowed 224 total rushing yards against Northland Pines. It will have to be better against Rhinelander.
One advantage Lakeland might have going into the game is adversity. They have faced adversity in both of their games thus far and have had to make clutch plays late in games.
It’s a game of two rivals. In a game of two undefeated teams, it’ll surely be a fight for the right to be 3-0.
Brett LaBore may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]