Panthers close out Northwoods Conference football title with win over Crivitz

Dustin Riese

The 2023 football season couldn’t have gone better for the Oconto Falls Panthers, but they still had more work to do. Already with a spot in the 2023 playoffs, the Panthers had an opportunity to capture their first Northwoods Conference title as they squared off against second-place Crivitz on Oct. 13.

Despite the heavy rains that wreaked havoc across the area, the Panthers were focused from the start. All it took was another strong rushing performance from Alex Haines and Wyatt Laughrin for the Panthers to take care of the Wolverines 36-14, close out an unbeaten conference slate and grab the league title.

“I’m just really proud of our kids,” coach Nick Bohl said. “They have done everything our coaches have asked for every day. They give us maximum effort in everything we do. They are high character kids and great humans.”

When it comes to the Panthers and their offense, it stops and starts with a rushing attack that has been dominant since the start of the season. Haines continued to have his way with defenses as his mix of speed and power makes him difficult to take down. He combined with Jameson Beaman on the opening drive to move the chains and put the Wolverines’ defense on their heels. Haines was just getting started as he ripped off a long run to move the ball inside the Crivitz 10-yard line, before finishing things off for the game’s first score and putting the Panthers in front 8-0.

Oconto Falls didn’t look back from there; they never trailed but were locked into a little bit of a battle early on. While it was the rushing attack that got the Panthers going, Crivitz’s special teams got them going as a long kick return moved the ball inside Oconto Falls territory and set the Wolverines up with a short field. A few first down runs from Tegan Werner kept the ball moving, but it was the Kaden Klaver keeper that set the Wolverines up before Klaver hooked up with Brody MacNeil for 20 yards as the first quarter came to a close.

Two plays into the second quarter and it was Crivitz getting on the board as a 9-yard touchdown run pulled the Wolverines within two points, 8-6. That would be as close as they would get as the rushing attack from the Panthers would be a problem all game long.

Haines played a significant role in that as he broke free on the very first play of the Panthers’ next possession and outran the defense for the 63-yard score to put the Panthers in front 16-6. Haines finished the game with 244 yards on 22 carries while also scoring three times; he will enter the postseason with more than 1,400 yards on the ground.

It was at this point when the Panthers defense began to take over as the Crivitz offense was unable to get much of anything going. That put the ball back into the Panthers’ hands with Laughrin and Haines continuing to move the chains on the ground. Haines plowed in from two yards out to give the Panthers a 24-6 halftime lead.

Just 30 minutes away from clinching a conference title, it was the Wolverines who were looking to set the tone early as Kramer started to power his way to a few first downs, only to have their drive end with another turnover on downs. The same can’t be said for the Panthers as Haines continued to be the primary focus on the ground — with Laughrin now starting to chip in and pick up yards of his own. That opened things up for other players to get involved, including Brayden Majerczyk who picked up a first down of his own to move the chains.

A few players later, Trent Blazek capped off that drive with a 4-yard score as the Panthers opened up a 30-6 lead. Credit goes to the Wolverines for not giving up, as they returned the ensuing kick off for 48 yards to help set things up for the offense with a short field. A few plays later, the Wolverines capitalized on the short field as TJ Mueller picked up the Wolverines’ second score of the game to pull within 30-14. That would be it in terms of their offense, as the Panthers’ rushing attack was just too much for them to handle.

With the clock winding down in the third, the Panthers could taste victory and continued to rely on Haines and Laughrin to move the chains. Laughrin appeared to have the big play on the drive with a 24-yard run only to have it called back due to holding. One play later, it was Haines ripping off a 40-yard gain to move the ball inside the 10 before Laughrin picked up the final score of the game to push the lead to 36-14.

With less than two minutes remaining in the game and with the ball in their hands, the celebration began as the Panthers held the ball the rest of the way and closed out the victory to cap off their first-ever Northwoods league title and first conference title in nearly 30 years.

“Everything we have accomplished this year has truly been earned,” Bohm said. “We earned one more game, and hopefully we can earn more. We will do everything we can to have an outstanding postseason.”

Now that the regular season is over, the Panthers can focus on the postseason where they earned a No. 3 seed and will begin play at home Oct. 20 against No. 6-seeded Somerset. This marks the third straight year that the Panthers have made the postseason.