By Paul Lecker
The Spencer/Columbus Catholic and Stratford football teams headed into a meeting in Week 1 of the 2018 season, way back on Aug. 17, just trying to find its identities.
Fast forward to this Friday’s matchup, in a WIAA Division 5 Level 4 state semifinal, and the stakes are obvious for the 10-2 Tigers and 11-1 Rockets.
The winner of the game, which will begin at 7 p.m. at Medford High School, moves on to the 2018 WIAA State Football Championships at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. The Division 5 championship game is slated for 4 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15.
Lake Country Lutheran (12-0) and Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs (12-0) play in the other semifinal on Friday at West Bend East. Springs has won five of the last seven Division 6 state titles, including last year, before moving up to Division 5 for the 2018 playoffs. Click here to view the entire WIAA Level 4 playoff matchups.
Both the SC and Stratford programs have emerged as powerhouses during the past two decades.
Spencer/Columbus’ success is more recent, having qualified for the playoffs each of the past five seasons. The Rockets lost in Level 4 to Little Chute in 2014 before going all the way to the Division 5 state title game in 2015 and losing to Amherst. Amherst also ended the Rockets’ playoff run in the third round the past two seasons.
Stratford is in the playoffs for the 27th-straight season and has won at least one playoff game nine years in a row. However, after winning six-straight Division 6 state titles between 2003 and 2008, the Tigers have not made it as far as the state semifinals again until this year.
“We’ve all dreamed of this,” Stratford senior running back Kade Ehrike said. “Every single one of us, whether you’re a freshman or a senior, we’ve been dreaming of this, we’ve been working for it all year long. Now, it’s reality and we want to keep pushing and make it to state.”
Spencer/Columbus won that meeting earlier this year, 27-7, as the Rockets raced out to a 27-0 lead by halftime.
“They’re a good program and have their system, offensively and defensively,” SC coach Jason Gorst said of the Tigers. “Good programs don’t tend to vary from their system a whole lot. I’m sure they will have wrinkles and twists, as we will too, but there’s a lot to be learned. When you play a team two times in a year, it’s unique in football.”
A lot has happened since that August matchup and Stratford coach Jason Tubbs said he feels his team has improved a lot since then.
“Right now, we’re playing really well,” Tubbs said. “Our offense is clicking on all cylinders. We have to play our game this week, continuing our inside-outside game (on offense) and continue playing strong, physical defense and look at this game as a completely new game. We both have the same records in the playoffs right now. The guys have gotten better and committed to get better.”
Spencer/Columbus started the year 7-0 before losing to Eau Claire Regis on Oct. 5. Since, the Rockets have ripped off four more wins and are feeling good heading into the big matchup with Stratford.
“I think both offenses are more complex at this point and defensively, the adjustments throughout the year on how to handle certain situations and communication is big,” Gorst said. “You have to get better each and every week, and you have to be committed to that. Even if you start out the year with a big win, you aren’t going to go anywhere unless you improve significantly come playoff time. I think we’ve done that.”
Stratford is fueled by a bruising running game led by Ehrike, who has run for 1,642 yards and 26 touchdowns this season. Three other backs – Chase Flink, Derek Marten and Matt Handrick – have between 275 and 406 yards on the ground as well.
While quarterback Max Schwabe has thrown for 1,356 yards and 12 TDs, it is the running game that makes Stratford go.
“They’ve grown a lot since Week 1, so have we,” Spencer/Columbus lineman Logan Zschernitz said. “I think they’ve gained a lot of experience with their younger guys, so I think it’s going to be a much tougher game.”
The Spencer/Columbus offense is a bit more diverse as running backs Austin Bacon (791 yards, 12 touchdowns), Hayden Bauman (754 yards, 11 touchdowns), and Carson Hildebrandt (673 yards, 12 touchdowns) have split more of the carries.
Bacon has also emerged as the team’s top receiver, catching 30 balls for 508 yards and 10 scores.
Quarterback Jarred Mandel put up 1,451 yards passing and 20 TDs, while adding another 359 yards rushing and five scores.
“Our line does a great job, whether it’s pulling or straight up, they do a great job opening holes for our running backs or giving me time in the passing game,” Mandel said.
Stratford lineman Dylan Schoenherr said the Tigers got a wake-up call in that Week 1 loss and have improved as a result of it.
“I don’t think we were prepared as we should have been,” Schoenherr said of the first meeting to the Rockets. “(The loss) helped us focus more on preparation and focus, and showed us maybe we weren’t as good as we thought we were at that time.
[pro_a[pro_ad_display_adzone id=”10578"]p>“We’re just getting ready for this game and not worrying about what happens after that.”
In what looks like a fairly even matchup on paper, throw in the fact that the two towns are separated by a mere 13 miles, and this state semifinal is shaping up to be an epic battle.
“A lot of us know guys from over there and it’s always a good game between us,” Mandel said. “We’re really excited to play them.”
The game will be broadcast on WOSQ-FM 92.3 and wdlbwosq.com, and will be live-streamed at zaleskisportsshow.com.
Paul Lecker is publisher of MarshfieldAreaSports.com and a contributor to focusonmarshfield.com.