MENOMONIE — In a matchup of two of the state’s oldest rivals, it looked like a new rivalry was blooming in the Menomonie and Chippewa Falls backfields.

For a while, at least.

Menomonie running back Kade Schultz, making his season debut, and Chippewa Falls running back Matt Pomietlo, who had scored six times through the first two games of the season, were matching each other blow for blow.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, only Schultz would make it through the game injury-free. So the Mustangs rode the workhorse back and his four touchdowns to a 33-23 win on Friday at Don and Nona Williams Stadium.

“I was really proud of our kids,” Menomonie coach Joe LaBuda said. “For the second week in a row we came out and got behind 7-0, and a lot of young teams will fold when they get behind and things don’t go well. And things didn’t go well for us early.

“I thought our kids, for the second week in a row, after giving up that first touchdown responded. ...That shows a lot of character.”

Pomietlo’s first carry of the game went for 40 yards, and moments later he surged into the end zone from five yards out to put Chippewa Falls ahead 7-0 early.

Schultz and the Mustangs answered on the next drive, with Schultz rushing for 45 yards on four carries — including a one-yard touchdown run. It capped a nine-play drive.

Pomietlo would only stay in the game for one more drive before he exited with an injury, forcing Chippewa Falls to adjust its plan of attack. It didn’t quite go as planned though. Pomietlo ran for 60 yards on five carries. Without him in the game, the Cardinals were held to 87 rushing yards on 22 carries. He re-entered for one play in the second half before returning to the sidelines.

“If he doesn’t get hurt, I think that changes the game. He is a tremendous back,” LaBuda said of Pomietlo. “Not taking anything away from our kids, but I think you have to understand with him getting hurt, it was a big turning point in this game.”

Both Menomonie (3-0, 1-0) and Chippewa Falls (2-1, 0-1) have high expectations this season, adding an extra level of intrigue to the rivalry’s 106th installment.

Menomonie entered the game carrying a 17-game win streak in the Big Rivers Conference, and kept it alive after a shaky start. Chippewa Falls’ Luke Schemenauer intercepted a pass from Menomonie quarterback Jake Ebert on the first drive of the game, leading to Pomietlo’s early touchdown.

The strong start had the Cardinals flying high, but the Mustangs eventually brought them back down to earth.

“I told the kids after the game, (we) had two nonconference games where they had their way with their opponents, and they started the game tonight with an interception, three plays later they were up 7-0. I think they thought things were going to be a little easier than what it ended up being,” Chippewa Falls coach Chuck Raykovich said.

Menomonie regrouped from the start with a generally solid defensive effort, especially in the third quarter. The Mustangs only allowed Chippewa Falls to get one first down on four drives in that period.

“Our offense put (our) defense in a hole too many times. We gave Menomonie too many short fields,” Raykovich said.

Short fields were where the Mustangs thrived. All but two of Menomonie’s scoring drives began in Chippewa Falls’ half of the field.

Coming out of halftime leading 13-7, the Mustangs scored twice in the third quarter and once early in the fourth to go ahead 33-7. Schultz and Ebert had rushing scores of 13 and 23 yards in the third quarter, respectively. Schultz found the end zone for his fourth score less than two minutes into the fourth — again from the one-yard line. He would finish the night with 117 total yards. 

After falling behind by 26, the Cardinals had to all but abandon the ground game. The aerial attack hadn’t worked for most of the first half and third quarter, but quarterback Nolan Hutzler got things going in the fourth to make a game of it.

After Tyler Bohland had rushed for a one-yard score early in the fourth to cut the lead to 33-15, Hutzler found Bohland for a nine-yard touchdown pass to pull the Cardinals within 10.

“Their kids didn’t give up. You’ve got to give the Chippewa kids a lot of credit. They didn’t give up, they fought us right to the end,” said LaBuda.

The Cardinals elected not to try an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, and Schultz rushed for 13 yards on third-and-four to essentially ice the game away with a first down.

For a young Menomonie team, it was an impressive win in a tough test to open conference play.

“The biggest takeaway was I thought our kids showed a lot of character,” LaBuda said.

The experienced Cardinals will have a shot to bounce back in a big way when defending Division 3 state champion Rice Lake visits next week.

“It’s a hard thing to say, but sometimes you’ve got to get hit in the face a few times to realize that this is the Big Rivers, and nothing comes easy,” Raykovich said.