NEW RICHMOND — A poster has hung in the team's meeting room since the summer with season goals and player signatures marking their commitment to making it happen.
On Friday night the Rice Lake football team crossed off one of those goals by earning a share of the Big Rivers Conference title following a 44-28 victory over New Richmond.
"When they can see the process and commit to it, it’s a pretty awesome thing when you can make it happen," Rice Lake coach Dan Hill said.
It's the Warriors first Big Rivers title since the 2015 season, and could be its last for a while as Rice Lake is set to move to the Middle Border Conference next year. Despite being the smallest school by enrollment in the Big Rivers, Rice Lake made a statement this season going 6-1 to tie Menomonie atop the conference standings. The Mustangs handled the Warriors their lone Big Rivers loss.
"We showed them we should still belong in this conference," senior quarterback Cole Fenske said.
Rice Lake's offense was rolling on Friday night until one mistake quickly turned a comfortable cushion into a tight game. Its defense, which was getting picked apart by New Richmond quarterback Seamus Scanlan, needed to step up, and it did just that in getting a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions to seal the win.
The Warriors raced down the field on their opening possession of the second half. A big pass play from Fenske to Alex Belongia for 38 yards set up a Fenske scoring run from 2 yards out to put Rice Lake ahead 36-22 with 7:38 to go in the third quarter. The Tigers answered with a 5-yard TD pass from Scanlan to Drew Effertz to get to within 36-22 with 3:30 left in the third.
The mistake came on the ensuing kickoff, when Fenske coughed up the ball and New Richmond's Trey Cork ran it back to the Rice Lake 2-yard line. Scanlan found Brock Unger as the Tigers cut the deficit to 36-28 with 2:17 still to go in the third.
New Richmond got pass plays of 14 and 21 to eventually to move across midfield with a chance to tie, but the Warriors finally got the defensive play they needed as Belongia recorded his state-leading eighth interception of the year.
"That’s what had to happen," Hill said. "Sooner or later we’ve got (to get) a break on a ball and take it. Give (New Richmond) credit, they’re very good at it, they’re very talented."
Christian Lindow secured a 6-yard score for Rice Lake as the Warriors pulled ahead by two scores with about three minutes to go in the contest. Nolin added an interception on the ensuing New Richmond drive to seal the game.
"We were struggling at first stopping their spread but finally we figured it out and made plays when we could," Belongia said.
The Warriors opened the game with scores on each of their first four drives. Complimenting an effective ground game was Rice Lake aerial attack. Fenske completed all seven of his throws in the opening half for 157 yards and two scores. Belongia hauled in a 16-yard touchdown with Nolin adding one from 14.
Overall the Warrior quarterback finished the game 10 of 11 for 234 yards. Belongia had four receptions for 120 yards.
"The receivers just went up and got them," Fenske said. "The O-line was giving me time to throw. It worked out perfect."
Fenske ran for 103 yards on 13 carries with three touchdowns. Lindow scored once, totaling 95 yards on 19 attempts. Nolin added eight for 52.
Scanlan ended his day 24 of 30 for 304 yards and four touchdowns with two picks. Effertz hauled in 11 passes, including two touchdowns, for 131 yards.
After a pair of down years, and facing their last season in the Big Rivers, the Warriors were looking to make this a special year. With the regular season wrapped up and a conference title in hand they can now turn over their attention to the playoffs with hopes of an extended run.
"I believed it right from Week 1," Belongia said of winning the conference title. "I knew we could do it, we just had to put it all together. It doesn’t feel real but we did it."
Rice Lake 44, New Richmond 28
RL: Alex Belongia 19 pass from Cole Fenske (conversion failed).
RL: Fenske 9 run (conversion good).
NR: Drew Effertz 5 pass from Seamus Scanlan (Trey Cork kick).
RL: Fenske 2 run (conversion good).
NR: Ethan Turbeville 5 run (Cork kick).
RL: Elliot Nolin 14 pass from Fenske (conversion good).
RL: Fenske 2 run (conversion failed).
NR: Effertz 5 pass from Scanlan (Brock Unger run).
NR: Unger 12 pass from Scanlan (Cork kick).
RL: Christian Lindow 8 run (conversion good).
Team & Individual Statistics
RUSHING (att-yds): Rice Lake (40-252): Fenske 11-103, Lindow 18-99, Nolin 8-50, Carson Tomesh 1-5. New Richmond: 25-62.
PASSING (comp-att-int-yds): Rice Lake: Fenske 10-11-0-235. New Richmond: Scanlan 23-29-2-291.
RECEIVING (rec-yds): Rice Lake: Belongia 4-120, Tristan Scheurer 3-55, Nolin 2-38, Lindow 1-22.