Wildfire peak at end to reach playoffs
MOTT — After a one-year absence, the Mott-Regent-New England football team is back in the 9-man playoffs.
To get there, the Wildfire had to win their final two games to keep pace with the other teams fighting for the fourth spot out of Region 5. First, they defeated Central McLean 44-6 on Sept. 29, and then they won 50-22 against Grant County-Flasher on Oct. 6 to earn their berth.
"We were thinking it was playoffs two games ago," senior quarterback Josh Wallace said. "That was the whole team mindset through those games."
Mott-Regent-New England's reward is a road game at Ray-Powers Lake at 3 p.m. CT Saturday in Ray.
"These kids have been great to work with. We had some tough sledding there for a while, but overall this is a really good ball team, and I think we're getting it together," Wildfire co-head coach Ron Benson said. "The kids have played well the last few games, and hopefully we're peaking at the right time."
Ray-Powers Lake enters the contest 5-3 overall and 4-2 in Region 6. Benson highlighted quarterback Noah Fredrickson and his receivers — Derek Hale, Aiden Nordloef and Kyle VanBerkom — as the team's main offensive threats.
"They're kind of a mirror image of us. They spread things out, a lot of play-action pass," Benson said. "They've got a freshman quarterback. Can we put pressure on him? That's something we'll have to do. If he gets time, he's got some good receivers. They've got weapons."
After the Wildfire started the season with a 66-6 drubbing of Tioga, they suffered consecutive losses to New Salem-Almont-Glen Ullin and Shiloh Christian, teams that would eventually become the top two seeds out of Region 5.
"That was a tough start right away, and we were still getting used to each other," Benson said. "It was new for a lot of kids. The co-op (with New England) is great, but it takes time for kids to jell. ... Right now, I think we're playing better. The kids are blocking better, tackling better, they're getting more comfortable and trusting each other. All the things that make you a good ball team are starting to happen now."
Mott-Regent-New England then ripped off four wins in five games to finish the season 5-3 overall and 4-3 in the region, the only other loss by eight points to Beach, the eventual third seed.
"After we lost to Beach, we really kicked it into gear and really started pushing to get further and maybe play one of these teams that we lost to later on down the road," senior lineman Denit Sorenson said.
Sorenson is a member of an offensive line unit that Benson said has shown the most growth this season.
"It went pretty fast. We bonded quickly with being on the line," Sorenson said. "We talk before each play, we know where we're going and it works really good."
Included in that group are seniors Dalton Miller, Hunter Koepplin, Marquis Erickson and Jonah Candrian, among others.
"Those guys are really picking things up, picking up blitzes," Benson said. "They're really working well together."
Wallace has used the line's cohesiveness to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. He has rushed 150 times for 995 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he's thrown for 509 yards and 11 touchdowns. He said he owes much of that success to the teammates in front of him.
"I always think of the team as a body. The quarterback is the head, running back is the legs, but the line is always the heart, and without the heart, the whole team dies," Wallace said. "If the heart is running really good and it's working together right, then everything works really well. We just have a line that wants to win."