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Spartans bounce Bluejays in season opener

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One of the biggest questions facing the Superior High School football team heading into its opener against the Merrill Bluejays Friday night at the NBC Spartans Sports Complex was who was going to run the ball?

The answer? Everybody.

Despite a returning offensive backfield that combined for just 5 yards rushing last season, Corey Sanders, Gunnar Gronski and Zach Tharge scored four touchdowns and helped in piling up 451 yards, including 300 rushing, as the Spartans defeated the Bluejays 39-14 before a packed house on a warm night.

“Everyone thought we were going to be down this year, and coach said that people were thinking it’s going to be a rebuilding year,” said Tharge, who scored two touchdowns and had 150 total yards on offense. “We know that we’re a pretty good football team, and we’re going to try to prove it every game.”

Tharge’s line included three catches for 114 yards, 36 yards rushing and five tackles.

“Zach is a fantastic leader on this football team and he played his tail off,” DeMeyer said. “He did a lot of things on both sides of the ball as well as on special teams. He’s just an incredible kid and an incredible football player.”

One of Tharge’s catches was an 85-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Gunner Johnson, who had a pretty good game himself. The senior left-hander completed 7-of-14 passes for 151 yards and rushed for 100 yards on 10 carries.

“Gunner played fantastic, he spread the ball around, made great decisions and took care of the football,” DeMeyer said. “We knew we were going to have a balanced team. Our offensive line did a fantastic job up front, and our backs were physical and blocked well, as did our wide outs. I was happy with our play all around.”

Sanders added 84 yards rushing and a touchdown, and Gronski finished with 64 yards and two touchdowns.

“We executed offensively and defensively,” Johnson said. “We had a great game as a team, and the energy was always high, that’s what we need.

“The offensive line did a great job all game long; there’s nothing more we can ask of them. The entire team played a great game.”

One question the Spartans knew the answer to was in their kicking game where senior Sam Kline kicked a 31-yard field goal and was 5-for-5 on extra-point attempts.

The Spartans got the season off on the right foot with a touchdown on the first drive of the game.

Six plays after Chase Elder returned the opening kick 21 yards, Sanders ran untouched around the right end for his first varsity touchdown. Kline kicked the extra point, giving the Spartans a 7-0 lead just 2:46 into the game.

“I just came around and Zach Tharge made a great block, which allowed me to get into the end zone,” Sanders said. “It felt pretty good, hopefully I’ll get many more touchdowns.”

The Bluejays failed to take advantage of Ty Belfiori’s 50-yard return on the ensuing kickoff. After getting flagged for an illegal procedure on the 1-yard line, Merrill missed a 24-yard field goal attempt.

The Spartans were also called for illegal procedure on the first play of their next drive, but one play later Johnson threw a short slant pass to Tharge, who took the ball 85 yards for a touchdown. Kline’s extra point made the score 14-0 with 4:47 left in the opening quarter.

“Coach saw that the safety was way over to the left, we just exposed him,” Tharge said. “There was some great blocking on that play, Gunner’s pass was perfect, and as soon as I caught the ball it was off to the races.

“I thought someone was going to catch me, but I looked over my shoulder and was able to jump away from him.”

Merrill followed with a 20-play, 73-yard drive that ended with Jake Collinsworth plowing over from 2 yards out. Trey Seubert’s extra point got the Bluejays within 14-7 with 9:05 left in the second quarter.

After the Spartans failed to score from the 1-yard line on fourth down, and Merrill was forced to punt, Superior took a 21-7 lead when Gronski ran 11 yards up the middle for the score and Kline booted the extra point.

Merrill made things interesting when it took the second-half kick, marched 74 yards in 11 plays and got within 21-14 on Braeden Dorn’s 3-yard touchdown run and Seubert’s kick.

The Spartans followed with a 14-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Kline kicking a 31-yard field goal.

Superior really took control of game when Sanders’ interception a minute later set up Johnson’s 18-yard touchdown run. Kline’s kick ballooned Superior’s lead to 31-14 with 1:20 left in the third quarter.

“That interception was a pivotal play in the game,” DeMeyer said. “They were still in it and they were fighting like crazy, too. They’re a very good team, well-coached and have some very physical kids. They’re going to be a very good team in their conference.”

The Spartans put the finishing touches on their victory with Gronski’s 14-yard touchdown run with 9:44 remaining.

“I’m very pleased and I told the kids I was very happy that we didn’t make many mental errors,” DeMeyer said. “I also thought we played physical football against a very physical team. I liked the way our kids fought from start to finish.

“Scoring right away helped build up our confidence, but I also felt that when things weren’t going very well for us, we didn’t hang our heads and we kept fighting. If we keep doing those things, and take care of the ball, we’re going to enjoy a lot of success this season.”

The Spartans will play Holmen at 7 p.m. Friday in Rice Lake. Holmen is coming off a 15-14 win over Chippewa Falls.

SPARTAN SPIN: Blake Graskey, Joe Carter and Josiah McDonald had sacks for Superior. … Max Plunkett and Graskey both had eight tackles, Gronski and Carter had seven tackles apiece and McDonald, Tharge and Sanders had five each. … Ben Tabor led Merrill with six tackles. Collinsworth added five tackles and Belfiori had four. … Superior is now 4-0 all-time vs. Merrill. … The Spartans’ only punt came with 3:55 remaining.

 

Merrill.................. 0        7     7       0      —     14

Superior............... 14       7     10     7      —     38

First Quarter

S  — Corey Sanders 23-yard run (Sam Kline kick), 9:07.

S — Zach Tharge 85-yard pass from Gunner Johnson (Kline kick), 4:47.

Second Quarter

M – Jake Collinsworth 2-yard run (Trey Seubert kick), 9:05.

S – Gunnar Gronski 11-yard run (Kline kick), 1:52.

Third Quarter

M – Braeden Dorn 3-yard run (Seubert kick), 7:42.

S – Kline 31-yard field goal, 3:05.

S – Johnson 18-yard run (Kline kick), 1:20.

Fourth  Quarter

S – Gronski 13-yard run (Kline kick), 9:44.

TEAM STATISTICS

                                           M               SHS

Total Plays........................... 65                56

Total Yards.......................... 243               451

Passing Yards...................... 46                151

Rushing Yards...................... 197               300

First Downs.......................... 14                23

Third Down......................... 5-11              3-6

Fourth-Down........................ 0-3               0-1

Turnovers.............................. 1                  0

Fum. Lost............................. 0                  0

Int. Thrown........................... 1                  0

Penalties............................. 8-51             10-56

 

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING — SHS, Gunnar Gronski, 7-64; Gunner Johnson, 10-100; Corey Sanders, 5-47; Zach Tharge, 7-36; Udeen, 3-20; Conner Fonger, 3-14; CJ Fortune, 3-12; Elijah Owens, 1-7. Merrill, Braeden Dorn, 14-60; Nevada Laabs, 9-57; Jake Collinsworth, 8-52; Zach Mootz, 12-31; Dominic Leistikow, 1-2; Holden Smith, 1-1.

PASSING — SHS, Johnson, 7-14-0-151; Spencer Udeen, 0-1-0-0. Merrill, Mootz, 6-10-1-41; other, 1-1-0-5.

RECEIVING — SHS, Tharge, 3-114; Sanders, 2-19; Max Plunkett, 1-11; Sam Kline, 1-7. Merrill, Jared Olhoff, 3-26; Smith, 2-10; Adam Loehn, 1-5; Ben Tabor, 1-5.

DEFENSE

Superior

                                        Tk     Ast     Sck    TFL

Max Plunkett....................... 8       -        -       1

Blake Graskey..................... 8       1       1       1

Gunnar Gronski.................... 7       1       -       -

Joe Carter........................... 7       1       1       3

Josiah McDonald.................. 5       2       1       2

Zach Tharge........................ 5       1       -       -

Corey Sanders..................... 5       -        -       -

Christian Pettit..................... 4       2       -       -

Luke Drougas....................... 3       -        -       -

CJ Fortune.......................... 2       -        -       -

Chase Summerfield............... 2       2       -       -

Chase Elder........................ 1       -        -       -

Kaleb Ullan.......................... 1       -        -       -

Sam Kline........................... 1       -        -       -

Trevor Dalbec...................... 1       -        -       -

Merrill

Ben Tabor, 6; Jake Collinsworth, 5; Ty Belfiori.

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