The Lakeland football team competed in their first playoff game in the decade, taking on Menomonie Friday night.
“The fact that we were able to get over the hump and get back to the playoffs which is something that the program has been missing for so long is a great, great start,” explained coach Dan Barutha.
The Mustangs showed their strength as a program, winning 52-8 at Don and Nona Williams Football Stadium on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Getting ready for the opening kickoff, the Thunderbirds looked to set themselves up with the early advantage, by trying an onside kick. The Mustangs recovered and started close to mid-field.
“We [went] for the onside kick to start the game, trying to get some momentum,” Barutha said.
On third down, quarterback Tyler Werner completed a pass to Davis Barthen for a 55-yard play down to the goal line. Two plays later, Will Ockler ran it in for a one-yard touchdown. The extra point was no good and the Mustangs led 6-0.
On the kickoff, the Mustangs tried an onside kick themselves and recovered.
“Then they get the onside kick on the ensuing kickoff,” Barutha said. “We told our guys about it. Unfortunately we didn’t execute.”
Zach DeMarce had a big 20-yard run to set themselves on the goal line once again. DeMarce tried to run it again, but got stuffed by Nick Kizorek.
Then, DeMarce finished the drive off with a two-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion was unsuccessful and the Mustangs led 12-0 without the Thunderbirds even possessing the ball.
Finally possessing the ball, the Thunderbirds went three and out after two Erik Albertus carries and an incomplete pass.
Menomonie continued their high-powered offense with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Ockler from Werner on the Mustangs’ next drive. They led 20-0 with four minutes left in the first quarter.
“They have a really good program,” Barutha said. “They have a very strong culture. And you look they’re rotating guys in, subbing 11 in on offense, 11 on defense, suiting up 100 guys.”
Looking for a quick score, the Thunderbirds started to put together a nice drive. Albertus ran five yards for Lakeland’s first first down of the game. After a false start penalty, Michael Ouimette carried the ball for nine yards.
Two plays later, Ouimette had the first down, but fumbled the ball, recovered by the Mustangs.
The Mustangs used that turnover to their advantage. Kaden Kado had a 23-yard catch to get things going. Before long, DeMarce found himself in the end zone once again. The Mustangs led 26-0.
Ouimette completed his first pass of the game with an 11-yard strike to Chase Hunt for a first down. Right after that, the Thunderbirds tried a trick play. What looked like a handoff to Albertus turned into a throw to Ouimette, who slipped out from the backfield.
Albertus’ throw got tipped by Ouimette and then intercepted by Dylan Boeker for a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown. The extra point was no good and the Mustangs led 32-0 after the first quarter.
“As we’re moving the ball in the first half, we turned the ball over a few times and those are killer, critical mistakes unfortunately,” Barutha said.
Looking for a spark, the Thunderbirds went for it on fourth down to try and get some points. Albertus took the fourth down carry and converted it for a first down. The drive stalled after a sack and Lakeland punted.
On the Mustangs’ next drive, both DeMarce and Parker Schultz ran for first downs. Ockler finished the drive off with a nine-yard touchdown.
Cody Wolfe caught a pass for a first down on Lakeland’s next drive. Once again, the Thunderbirds had to punt after a sack.
Werner threw a couple of successful passes during Menomonie’s next drive. One went to Kaleb Kazmarek, the other to Jaylen Wright, both for first downs. The drive ended with a Caleb Hueman nine-yard touchdown run.
“They’re really well coached [and] they got some really really good players,” Barutha said. “They’re depth really wore on us.”
The Mustangs led 46-0 at half.
During the second half, the Thunderbirds were able to move the ball down the field on two separate drives.
On their second drive of the second half, Ouimette carried the ball for a first down. Then, Albertus ran for a first down. On third down, Hunt caught a pass for a first down.
The drive came to a fourth down. A chunk of the yardage came on a Mustang offside penalty. Then, Wolfe caught a pass for a first down.
“Just the atmosphere, the opportunity, the experience for the guys to be able to play in a playoff game was incredible,” Barutha said.
The drive continued with a Ouimette six-yard carry, followed by a first down run. On the next play, it looked like Ouimette scored, but he had fumbled in the end zone, recovered by the Mustangs.
The Thunderbird defense forced the Mustangs to give it back to Lakeland.
With time running out in the game, the Thunderbirds had one more crack at the end zone. Ouimette got the ball down inside Mustang territory.
With 40 seconds left, Ouimette threw to Wolfe who fought his way in for a 10-yard touchdown. It was Wolfe’s fourth straight game with a touchdown catch.
On the extra point, the Thunderbirds tried one more trick play. Holder Brandon Zajac took the snap and ran it in for the two-point conversion. It was a positive way to end the game.
“It was really important from our morale and our standpoint to be able to have another small successful win for this season to be able to put one in the end zone because the last time the program scored a touchdown in the playoffs was 2008,” Barutha said.
The Thunderbirds ended up outscoring the Mustangs 8-6 in the second half.
The big picture
Even though the Thunderbirds’ season ended, it is one that will not be forgotten by Barutha.
“This’ll be a season that sticks out in my mind for a long time,” he said.
Brett LaBore may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]