Seven minutes and 42 seconds into Friday’s Level 1 playoff game between River Falls and Rhinelander, the Wildcat had scored 22 points while Rhinelander had run three offensive plays-- one resulting in a safety and another a fumble.
“You can’t really draw that start up any better,” River Falls coach David Crail said.
By halftime the Wildcat lead was 43-0, and Crail turned the second hall over to the Cat’s backups, who with a running clock put the finishing touches on a 48-6 victory to send River Falls to the second round of the WIAA playoffs.
“The kids did a really nice job,” Crail said “We had a great week of practice. They understood what the opportunity they have in front of them means. When you get in the playoffs and you have an opportunity to advance and continue to build on the things you did during the regular season, it’s important, and it means a lot to these guys. They put in the work and they executed very well tonight.”
Of all the Wildcats who stood out, tight end and linebacker Joe Stoffel rose above everybody. Stoffel caught three touchdown passes and ran an interception back for a score-- all in a span of just over 16 minutes-- in what was likely the final home game of his career.
“It was all about preparation during the week,” Stoffel said. “I just kept telling the guys to stay focused during the week and I think that really paid off in the end.”
Stoffel, who has verbally committed North Dakota State University, finished with five catches for 105 yards while adding a sack and an interception on defense.
“He can take over a football game, and he certainly did tonight,” Crail said about the 6-4, 240 pound senior “That was quite the performance. He’s worked hard to put himself in a position to be able to do that. He’s not just coming out here on talent alone, he’s worked his tail off.”
Michael Krueger capped the Cat’s opening drive of the game with an 11-yard touchdown run and the Cat’s pinned Rhinelander at its own 8-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. Linebacker Connor Cardell broke through the line on first down and wrapped up Hodag quarterback Quinn Lamers in the end zone. Lamers tried throwing the ball away but was flagged for intentional grounding, resulting in a safety and a 9-0 Wildcat lead.
Krueger made it a 16-0 game with an 8-yard touchdown run on the Cat’s next possession, and linebacker Austin Mueller forced and recovered a Hodag fumble on second down, before quarterback Peter Noreen hit Stoffel for a 25-yard catch and run and the Wildcat lead was 22-0 with 4:18 remaining in the first quarter.
Stoffel scored all three River Falls touchdowns in the second quarter, catching passes of 23 and 14 yards and sniffing out a Rhinelander screen and returning it 38 yards for a score.
Stoffel said he read the play right away.
“I was getting a really good pass rush during the game and then they just stepped aside and I was like, that’s not right, so I stopped and saw the ball in the air and it was up for grabs and I just picked it off and ran it back,” he said.
Krueger finished with 93 rushing yards on 13 carries while Noreen completed 8-of-9 passes for 157 yards. Payton Flood caught three passes for 50 yards.
Rhinelander’s lone touchdown didn’t come until 1:23 remaining against the Wildcat backups. Crail said it was important to see the second-stringers gain valuable playoff experience.
“They work their tails off too and they did a great job all week; maybe our best week in terms of our scout team preparing for what we were going to see,” he said. “And we’re going to need them coming up this week as well. It’s nice to be able to reward them with the opportunity to play in a playoff game. Not everybody gets that shot in their high school careers. And it’s fun to see them get after it too.”
Arsenio Black paced the River Falls defense with six tackles, all solo, while Cardell added a pair of sacks, including one for a safety.
The win was the sixth straight for the Wildcats since losing all-state running back Seth Kohel to a season-ending knee injury in a 21-7 loss to Menomonie Sept. 13.
“After Menomonie Crail said it’s time to run the table; that’s the last loss we’re going to have,” Stoffel said. “So I think after that we just felt like we needed to pick it up and keep going. And that’s still the plan.”
Third-seeded River Falls will travel to No. 2 Medford, 53-0 winners over Hayward, for a Level 2 playoff game Friday, Nov. 1. Crail said the Cats will enjoy their win over Rhinelander before getting back to work.
“I told the guys they could enjoy this until midnight, then we flip the switch,” he said. “That’s the thing about the playoffs; you have to be ready to go. This is exciting; it’s exciting for our team, it’s exciting for our school and community, so we’re going to maintain that excitement for a little bit, then we’re going to get to work.”