River Falls football coach Ryan Scherz knows that the farther you go in the playoffs, the tougher each game gets.
The top-seeded Wildcats found that out last week when they trailed Marshfield 21-12 in the third quarter of their Level 2 playoff game. It was the first time all season they had trailed by more than a touchdown. But they answered the bell by scoring the last 24 points of the game to post a 36-21 victory over the No 4 Tigers.
Now comes third-seeded West De Pere, who the Wildcats will host in a Level 3 game this Friday night. Like River Falls, West De Pere takes a record of 10-1 into the game and is coming off a 21-6 Level 2 win over New Richmond. Their only loss was to undefeated Bay Port in the regular season finale.
Scherz said he knows the Cats will have their hands full.
“They're a really, really good defense,” he said. “They're a lot like Hudson, there's just tons of athletic kids over there. And you have to be pretty smart about how you attack them, otherwise you're in for a long day. It will absolutely be a very difficult matchup, but I would never doubt our kids.”
There was no doubting the Wildcats last week when they reeled off 24 unanswered points to beat Marshfield 36-21 and advance to Level 3 of the WIAA playoffs for just the second time in school history.
The Cats’ comeback started with a bang when quarterback Jacob Range found Jordan Karras for a 59-yard touchdown and Karras ran over for the two-point conversion to cut the Marshfield lead to 21-20 midway through the third quarter.
Jonah Severson capped a Wildcat drive with a 5-yard touchdown run on the Cats’ ensuing possession, then caught the two-point conversion attempt pass from Range, to give the Cats a 28-21 lead.
A blocked punt by Cade Myszewski led to a 9-yard touchdown run by Severson– his third of the game– and another successful two-point attempt with just under nine minutes remaining pushed the Wildcat lead to 36-21.
Marshfield got as far as the Wildcat 25 yard line with just under six minutes left, but back-to-back sacks by Ben Esterby and Lucas Johnson led to an incomplete pass on 4th-and-17 to end the threat.
River Falls fumbled the ball away at their own 36 with under four minutes remaining, but the Wildcat defense forced another fourth down incompletion to seal the win.
Scherz said the Wildcats made some adjustments on defense in the second half that allowed the offense to control the ball.
“Controlling the ball is always something that I think is our style, and the more we can do that, the more successful we are,” he noted. “And once we got them on their heels you could definitely sense it was going to be tough for them to turn it back around.”
Range threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Myszewski in the first quarter to put the Cats up 6-0, and after a Marshfield touchdown and successful kick, Severson scored from 9-yards out to give River Falls a 12-7 lead midway through the second. But Marshfield took a 14-12 lead into the locker room and scored on its first possession of the second half to extend it to 21-12 before the Wildcats reeled off 24 unanswered points.
“We haven’t really been behind too much this season, so to be down nine in the third quarter was not a good spot for us,” Scherz said. “But the kids just never quit and fought themselves back in the game.”
Severson finished with 172 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 31 carries while Range completed 6-of-11 pass attempts for 102 yards and two scores. He also carried the ball 11 times for 66 yards.
Scherz said the Cats are going to have to step up their game this Friday against West De Pere.
“We're going to have to tackle really well,” he said. “We're going to have to play all our coverages and mix it up, because their quarterback is really good and they're really well coached in the passing game. Offensively we’ve got to keep the ball. So if we can do those three things, I think we’ve got a shot.”
Scherz said he’s also learned never to count this year’s Wildcat team out.
“I don't know if it's the most talented team we've had in the last five years, but it's certainly the team with the most grit and just kind of refuses to lose under any circumstances,” he said. “It's a credit to those kids. Anytime those guys in that room tell you they really want something, they get it. And that's what they did on Friday. They really wanted to get to Level 3. So hopefully we're not satisfied and we can keep it going. But it just keeps getting tougher and tougher too, so yeah, it'll be a challenge.”