Rice Lake is one game away from Madison.
If that sentence sounds familiar, it’s because it is. For the fourth time in the last five years, the Warriors have reached Level 4 of the Division 3 football playoffs, the game where teams play for the right to go to state.
Rice Lake, the defending Division 3 state champion, is no stranger to this scene. The Warriors have experienced the highs of winning and the lows of falling short on this stage. There’s not much that this current crop of players hasn’t seen on the gridiron.
“We’re not a bundle of nerves,” Rice Lake coach Dan Hill said. “We’ve been here before, and there have been years where we haven’t made it (to state) and where we have. The experience that the staff has, that the upperclassmen have, I think that adds weight to the fact that you can’t worry about what (your opponents) are or what they do. We need to focus on what we do.”
Even the Warriors’ opponent in Schofield tonight is familiar. They’ll clash with West De Pere for a trip to state, something they also did in 2014. Rice Lake won that game 34-31.
It could be a challenge to put that many points on the board this time around. The unbeaten Phantoms have an outstanding defense that has held opponents to an eye-catching average of 6.75 points per game. They shut out four teams this year, and have given up only nine points total in their last two games.
Bay Conference defensive player of the year Jake Karchinski leads that airtight defense. The Iowa recruit has six and a half sacks this season to go along with 44 tackles — including 13 for a loss.
“They’re very balanced and sound,” Hill said of the West De Pere defense. “They’ve got a lot of seniors over there, and they don’t make many mistakes. They’re big, physical, fast. Hard to find any weakness in that unit.”
Rice Lake’s big-play offense will be put to the test against the stingy Phantoms defense. The Warriors (10-2) have scored at least 26 points in all but one game this year, and have gotten over 30 on the scoreboard 10 times.
The Warriors’ triple option scheme has led to plenty of success. Torien Hubbard, DeAirus Clerveaux, Peyton Buckley and Marquez Clerveaux have all eclipsed 500 rushing yards on the season.
Rice Lake doesn’t throw much, but Buckley has made it count when the Warriors do air it out. He has 1,167 passing yards on 43 completions — good for 14.8 yards per attempt.
If Rice Lake’s number on the scoreboard is going to look like usual, mistakes will have to be at a minimum tonight.
“We have to execute. The offense we play is an underdog offense, but you have to be extremely disciplined in your fundamentals. That’s our focus,” Hill said.
Rice Lake played Notre Dame in this round in both 2016 and 2017. They fell to the Green Bay-based Tritons in 2016, but beat them last year to go to state.
West De Pere defeated Notre Dame 17-3 in Level 3 last week to reach this point. Rice Lake is here by virtue of a 42-31 win over Sparta in Level 3.
The Warriors held a 28-7 halftime lead in that game, but almost let it slip away.
“We did not play well last week. We turned the ball over and had blown assignments on defense to give up big plays, and we had penalties,” Hill said, noting that his squad has been focused on cleaning that up this week.
The Warriors feel that the rigors of playing in the Big Rivers Conference usually helps them out in the playoffs. In the regular season they often face Division 1 and Division 2 teams, giving them experience that can be invaluable when facing the top squads in Division 3.
Rice Lake lost two games in the Big Rivers this year, but was competitive week in, week out.
“With us, playing at this level is like playing Hudson or Menomonie or River Falls,” Hill said. “We lose to those guys at times, but we also beat them sometimes. It’s not looked at as this unachievable thing. When we get in the playoffs, we expect that we can do well.”
Doing well tonight would set up another deja vu for the Warriors. They’d be headed to the state championship game for the third time in five years.