The Rhinelander High School football team was officially eliminated from playoff contentions for the sixth consecutive year on Saturday after falling to Merrill. The Bluejays used early momentum and took advantage of four Hodag turnovers on the afternoon to cruise to a 21-7 victory at Jay Stadium for their Homecoming game.
Dominic Leistikow, a fullback of Merrill led the night with 193 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the afternoon on 28 carries. Overall the Bluejays finished with 360 total yards, all on the ground on 57 carries. Rhinelander finished with 202 total offensive yards which included 104 rushing and 98 passing yards.
The biggest difference of the game came down to the first half, where the Bluejays scored all three of their touchdowns on their first four possessions of the game. Merrill would have 230 rushing yards alone in the first-half.
In the opening possession, the Bluejays marched down the field 70 yards on six plays which was finished with a nine-yard touchdown run from Holden Smith to put Merrill ahead and they would never trail.
Rhinelander responded after the Bluejays scored and would find themselves on Merrill’s 12-yard line. On a fourth-and-five situation RHS decided against the 30-yard field goal attempt and the jet sweep play was fumbled between the exchange between quarterback Brock Lieder and receiver Josh Francisco that Merrill recovered at their 16-yard line.
The Hodags got momentum going after they answered with a touchdown of their own to tie the contest up 7-7 early in the second quarter. Walker Hartman gave Rhinelander great field position at the 23-yard line after blocking and recovering Tyler Wolff's punt. RHS junior running back Drake Martin capped off the drive with a one-yard touchdown run. Freddy Wisner’s extra point was good to tie the game up 7-7.
But the Hodags defense was unable to stop Merrill’s run game the rest of the second quarter. Leistikow of the Bluejays scored about five minutes apart starting at 6:04. The first was a four-yard run and his second with just over a minute left in the half was a 6-yard gain to give Merrill a 21-7 advantage and prove to be enough for the win.
RHS had a chance to pull within one touchdown at the end of the first half when Lieder got a break on a keep option but the ball was stripped and recovered at Merrill’s 30.
Rhinelander's defense picked up in the second half, where they held Merrill to only 130 rushing yards, but they just didn't have enough offense to dig themselves out of their first-half hole.
The Hodags had a few more opportunities in the second half with their best looking coming early in the fourth quarter. Rhinelander was inside the 5 and Lieder broke towards the end zone on a sweep to the right, but the ball was punched out inside the 1 and rolled into the end zone for a touchback.
Martin finished the night with the Hodags' only touchdown and rushed for 82 yards on 18 carries. Lieder finished with 28 rushing yards on 11 carries and added 97 yards passing on 6-12. Connor Lund had two receptions for 39 yards and was Lieder’s top receiver.
After Leistikow, Merrill had a several other rushers for a balanced offensive attack. Quinn Steckbauer finished with 45 yards on 13 carries and Smith added 71 yards on 10 carries.
The Hodags will be back at Mike Webster Stadium on Friday night when they host Ashland in their homecoming game. The Oredockers are 4-0 in the Great Northern Conference while RHS remains at 0-4. The Hodags, now officially out of the playoffs are looking to hand Ashland their first conference loss of the year. Kick-off is set for 7:00PM.