Any doubts about the Waupaca football team’s ability to put the ball in the end zone can be put to rest.
The Comets overcame a shaky start Oct. 19 and opened the Division 3 state playoffs with a 41-3 win over Rhinelander at Haberkorn Field.
The 9-0 Comets will now host Rice Lake at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, in a Level 2 matchup. The 6-3 Warriors are coming off of a 52-13 Level 1 win over West Salem.
Rhinelander took advantage of Waupaca’s early mistakes. Waupaca coughed up the opening kickoff and Ben Franson’s 21-yard field goal with 7:40 remaining in the first quarter came after the Comets’ second fumble.
“The game couldn’t have started any worse than how it started,” coach John Koronkiewicz said. “You don’t handle the kickoff, then you turn the ball over and gave up three points.”
Waupaca took the lead for good on Beau Ash’s 17-yard touchdown run midway through the second quarter. Quarterback Sam Menzies added a 3-yard score with 15 seconds remaining in the half and a missed extra point try made it 13-3 at the break.
“We finally got a score in the second quarter and then we did a nice job in our two-minute drill to get that second touchdown,” Koronkiewicz said.
The Hodags found some success running the football in the first half.
“They were double-teaming a lot of our guys on their inside play,” Koronkiewicz said. “If you’re a D-tackle in there and you’re getting 500 pounds coming down on you at times, it’s hard to hold your ground. It’s tough in there from the beginning of the game to the final snap.”
The second half turned out to be a different story, as Waupaca came up with three touchdowns on its first four plays.
After forcing the Hodags to punt, the Comets took over on their own 49-yard line. Menzies scored from 51 yards out on the first play of the drive and also ran for a two-point conversion on the extra point try.
Bryce Neidert blocked Jon Konz’s punt to set the Comets up at the Rhinelander 11-yard line and Menzies found Alex Hoffman in the back of the end zone for another score to make it 28-3.
Ash broke at least three tackles on a 62-yard TD run with 3:47 left in the third quarter after Waupaca took over on the Hodag 38-yard line.
“I think he used every move he had in the book on that one to get into the end zone,” Koronkiewicz said. “I don’t know if he has any more, but it was a fantastic run.”
Nate Nelson capped the scoring with a 47-yard run with 7:41 to go in the game.
While the offense scored four times in the second half, the Comet defense held the Hodags to 31 rushing yards in the second half.
“We made some adjustments at halftime,” Koronkiewicz said. “They were a little confused as to what we wanted them to do. We just kind of closed everybody down and covered everybody up on the inside. That made it a little tougher for them to find a gap. Then our guys started making plays.
“The defense came out and did what we wanted to do in the second half,” he added. “We got a stop and score right away and a turnover. Things definitely went our way in the second half.”
Waupaca had a 16-9 advantage in first downs and outgained the Hodags 205-117 on the ground and 105-33 through the air. Ash led the Comets with 128 yards in 13 carries, while Menzies and Nelson added 97 and 80 yards, respectively. Connor Johnson led Rhinelander in rushing with 68 yards.
Jenson caught three passes for 63 yards to lead Waupaca’s receivers, while Rhinelander’s Alec Baumgartner caught two for 33.
“Our people up front do a nice job creating some alleys,” Koronkiewicz said. “That’s the reason why we can get to the second level. Once you get to the second level, anything can happen. If your perimeter people can block, you’re asking a corner to come up and tackle Beau or (Nate) Jenson or Sam.”
The Comets are spending this week preparing for Rice Lake.
“I know they’re pretty good,” Koronkiewicz said. “They play in a pretty tough league (Big Rivers Conference) against very tough opponents. For them to come out of that league and get into the playoffs, that tells me they’re a very fine football team. We’ll have our hands full.”