September 15, 2023 at 5:50 a.m.

Lakeland football in familiar territory after 0-4 start

Thunderbirds take on Merrill tonight at 7 p.m.
Maccoy Holmquist attempts to make a catch against the defense of Medford’s Evan Wilkins Friday, Sept. 8 at Raider Field in Medford. (Photo by Brett LaBore/Lakeland Times)
Maccoy Holmquist attempts to make a catch against the defense of Medford’s Evan Wilkins Friday, Sept. 8 at Raider Field in Medford. (Photo by Brett LaBore/Lakeland Times)

Sports Reporter

They’ve been here before. The Lakeland football team is 0-4 through four games. They’ll look to go on a win streak like they did a season before. It all starts tonight against Merrill.

The Thunderbirds and the Bluejays play each other tonight in their third Great Northern Conference game of the season.

About the Bluejays

Merrill is 0-4, 0-2 GNC so far this season. They lost non-conference games to Osceola (0-41 score) and Crandon (7-13). The Bluejays then lost 0-12 to Medford on Sept. 1 and 0-28 to Antigo on Sept. 8.

The Lakeland offense has struggled to score points this season. The Bluejays have found it even more difficult offensively.

Merrill has scored just one touchdown this season. It came Aug. 25 at Crandon courtesy of running back Kaiden Henrich. The Bluejays have not scored a touchdown since Week 2, spanning 11 quarters. 

The Bluejays went 5-5, 4-3 GNC last season. However, much like Lakeland, they lost veteran players like quarterback Brian Ball, running back Nathan Brzoznowski and receiver Bradyn Pieper, among others, to graduation. 

“Merrill has struggled because they lost some good players to graduation. (Ball) was really athletic and could throw the ball. They had an all-region running back (Brzoznowski) last year that is no longer there,” coach Dan Barutha said. “Just like us, when you lose talented players to graduation, it requires other players to step up and fill those roles.”

This season, Henrich is doing the running for Merrill. Through their first three games, Henrich had 167 yards rushing on 49 carries and the one touchdown. He averaged 3.4 yards per attempt in those games. He ran for 104 yards in the game against Crandon.

The Bluejays’ new quarterback is Jacob Schmeltzer. He’s completed 12/29 passes for 117 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions in. EJ Weix is Merrill’s leading pass catcher with four receptions for 64 yards. Those stats are through Merrill’s first three games.

The Thunderbirds are looking to continue to keep the Bluejays off the scoreboard. After giving up a combined 83 points to Mosinee and Medford, the Thunderbirds are relishing the opportunity to show what their defense can do.

“We have to play together as a defense. We need to line up correctly, use our proper technique, hit and drive on tackles and create takeaways,” Barutha said. “We need to play 11 guys with one heartbeat.”

Lakeland will have to be wary of Merrill defenders Erik Mann and Jax Hanson. Together, Mann and Hanson have combined for 74 total tackles, four tackles for a loss, two sacks, three fumble recoveries and two forced fumbles so far this season.

The one common opponent the Thunderbirds and Bluejays share is Medford. Lakeland lost 14-50 to the Raiders last week. Merrill lost by just 12 points in a 0-12 game at home. Still, Medford ran for 358 yards against the Bluejays. 

Lakeland snapped their scoreless streak on offense last week at Medford. They ran the ball for some success and got the passing game going a bit. They’re looking to capitalize on the 14 points they scored. 

Merrill allowed 229 rushing yards and four touchdowns to Antigo last week. Lakeland is hoping to find similar results. 

“I see us have better and more sustained success rushing the football as the season progresses. We know we need to rush the football effectively for us to have offensive success. That is dictated by many things including our personnel, strengths, opponents, etc,” Barutha said. “We are doing a better job of showing our offensive identity, and we finished a pair of drives in the end zone. Finishing has been the mentality for a couple weeks now on offense, and you can see our guys have taken it to heart.”

Tonight is Lakeland’s fourth home game of the season so far. After this game, the Thunderbirds will have just one home contest left — the Oct. 6 Homecoming game vs. Hayward.

Lakeland has had recent success against the Bluejays. The Thunderbirds have won four out of the last five games vs. Merrill. To ensure a spot in the playoffs, the Thunderbirds need to go 4-1 in their final five games.

“We only get nine games a season so there’s a sense of urgency to win every one. The preparation that goes into every week as a coaching staff is critical and this week is no different than the previous four with our sense of urgency to achieve success,” Barutha said. “This one, like the last two, count more for reaching our goals than the first two non-conference games, but it still doesn’t change our focus, intensity, attention to detail and preparation.”

Slow starts

The Thunderbirds are off to an 0-4 start, the same record they had through four games last season. They have now started 1-3 or worse through the first four games of the season for four straight campaigns. However, in the previous three seasons, the Thunderbirds made the playoffs in two of them. 

The 2022 season in particular was memorable. Even though Lakeland started 0-4 last season, they ran the table and won their last five regular season games. That qualified them for the playoffs for the third time in four years.

There are similarities and differences between last year’s team and this year’s squad. That all factors into the equation as Barutha pinpoints the reason for their success late last season. 

“The similarities are noticeable,” he said. “We can look at the way we’ve played the first four games and there are similarities in how we’ve played in all three phases, what positions we’ve needed to step up, some of the adversity we’ve faced and certainly the record.”

The differences from last year lie in the injuries and lack of overall experience the Thunderbirds have this season.

“The differences are many though. We did not have as many injuries, especially season ending ones, that we dealt with last year,” Barutha said. “Last year, we also had quite a few returning players who were seniors that saw extensive time as juniors and sophomores. This year, we’re pretty young with only a handful of returning starters in all three phases.” 

Lakeland plays Merrill with a 7 p.m kick-off tonight in Minocqua. The winner of tonight’s game will pick up their first victory of the season.

Brett LaBore may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].


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