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Tigers face upset Red Hawks team in WIAA opener

The Northwestern High School football team is preparing for tonight’s WIAA Division 4 Level 1 playoff game at Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau as if it will be heading into a hornet’s nest.

Despite finishing the regular season undefeated with an overall record of 9-0, and winning the Coulee Conference title at 5-0, the Red Hawks were given the No. 3 seed for the playoffs and a home game against the No. 6 Tigers.

Higher seeds include No. 1 Osceola (9-0, 7-0), the champion of the Middle Border Conference; and No. 2 St. Croix Central (8-1, 6-1), who finished second behind Osceola and was last year’s D-4 state champion.

“G.E.T. isn’t too thrilled to be seeded behind any teams, especially a team with a loss (in St. Croix Central),” NHS coach Jovin Kroll said. “I believe they will play with a chip on their shoulder Friday night and we have to be ready because this could be the best team their school has ever had.

“But I believe we’re up for the challenge, and I like the matchup.”

G.E.T. is a run-oriented team and has four players with more than 350 yards rushing.

Benjamin Behan leads the way with 1,148 yards and 21 touchdowns; followed by Bryce Burns (645 yards, 11 TDs); Connor Jacobs (565 yards, 8 TDs); and Garrett Eddy (355 yards, 4 TDs). Dylan Johnson also only has 192 yards rushing, but he has scored six touchdowns.

Brett Lettner is the Red Hawks quarterback, completing 11-of-23 attempts for 478 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Five players have at least one reception, but none have more than 100 yards.

“G.E.T. is undefeated and they’re a big, strong, aggressive, senior-dominated team,” Kroll said. “We have seen their offense before in our own conference (Spooner), and we believe we are strong against the run, so it should be a fun night.”

The Tigers also feature a run-more-than-pass offense.

Junior Reagan Ruffi leads the NHS offense with 1,500 yards rushing, 19 touchdowns and 114 total points. Senior Andrew Hanson is next with 515 yards and nine touchdowns. Hanson is also the leader on defense with 50 tackles.

Senior quarterback Kade Bartelt has completed 21-of-51 passes for 334 yards, two touchdowns and five interceptions. His main target has been junior Brody Payton with 10 catches for 186 yards. Ruffi also has six catches for 82 yards and junior Keegan Plasch has caught five passes for 66 yards.

Alex Isakson is second in tackles for the Tigers with 43 tackles, followed by Plasch and Gervase Thompson IV with 32 and 31 tackles, respectively. All three are juniors.

One thing the Tigers might have on their side is history.

Northwestern is 3-0 in recent playoff matchups with G.E.T., winning 25-12 at home in 2015; 35-0 in 2004; and 28-6 at Eau Claire’s Carson Park in 2000.

Other regional matchups tonight include No. 8 Nekoosa at No. 1 Osceola; No. 5 Ellsworth at No. 4 Bloomer; and No. 7 Mauston at No. 2 St. Croix Central.

“I believe any of the top six teams in our region are capable of moving on to Madison,” Kroll said. “It just comes down to who protects the football and makes the fewest mistakes.”

TIGER TALES: In the 2015 playoff win over G.E.T., Nate Pearson scored all 25 of Northwestern’s points in the 25-12 victory. He ran in three touchdowns and kicked two field goals and an extra point. … The Red Hawks’ clean slate includes three shutouts — 43-0 over Nekoosa, 61-0 over Westby, and 52-0 over Arcadia. They’ve also allowed a touchdown or less in four gamesand their closest outcomes were 31-22 over West Salem and 72-21 over Black River Falls. … Northwestern’s past two seasons have ended with playoff losses to the eventual state champion. The Tigers lost to St. Croix Central 35-20 last season and Osceola 52-15 in 2015. … Tonight’s game will be carried live at WNXR 107.3 FM.