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Jaguars clinch playoff spot with win

By Greg Bates

ASHWAUBENON – It’s become a three-team race for the Fox River Classic Conference football title, and Ashwaubenon is in the thick of the hunt.

The Jaguars kept pace with Bay Port and Pulaski – which are all 5-0 — with a hard-earned, 38-10 victory over Manitowoc at Ashwaubenon High School Sept. 20.

With all three teams undefeated, something will have to give in the upcoming weekends.

After Ashwaubenon heads to Notre Dame Academy this Friday, it will have back-to-back games against Bay Port and at Pulaski.

Bay Port and Pulaski won’t tussle until the final Friday of the regular season.

“We don’t try to look down the schedule, but we want to be conference champions,” first-year Ashwaubenon coach Brian Ryczkowski said. “We know Bay Port has been for a while, but we know we have to beat everybody to be at the top of the food chain. This fifth win was really special and moves us one game closer to hopefully playing for a conference championship.”

The fifth win is special because it means Ashwaubenon has already punched its ticket for the playoffs – for the 22nd consecutive season.

But the Ashwaubenon players aren’t satisfied with simply getting into the postseason.

“We’ve got to keep grinding, stay hungry,” Ashwaubenon wide receiver Luke Schroeder said. “Five wins is great, but we’re still undefeated. We’ve got to keep pushing, try and get a home game and win it.”

Jaguars defensive back Mitchell Opperman didn’t think at the beginning of the season he would have believed his team would be off to a 5-0 start.

“Honestly, in the beginning, probably not,” Opperman said. “I would think we’d still be good. We have a solid group here, especially the seniors. I give credit to them. They’re hard-working, they lead the team and they’re able to keep us in the right direction.”

Ashwaubenon had its offense clicking, scoring its second-best output of the season with 38 points.

It was the Cadian Vang-to-Schroeder show all night.

The quarterback connected with his favorite target for three touchdowns.

Vang and Schroeder, who are both juniors, have been playing together since the seventh grade.

“We’ve always had that connection,” Schroeder said. “I trust him he’s going to make the right throw – he probably trusts me I’m going to catch the ball.”

Ryczkowski was impressed with Vang’s play all night.

Vang, who finished with four touchdown passes, has only had seven weeks in Ryczkowski’s offense since the new coach was hired in the offseason.

“He keeps getting better and better every week,” Ryczkowski said. “Those scramble plays which turn into a video game, that’s him being an athlete. When he throws the ball on schedule, it’s rewarding as a coach he was able to pick up on an offense so fast and only throw his second pick of the year when he didn’t even see the guy. I’m really proud of him and the line for getting protection.”

Ashwaubenon got out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead after a 23-yard touchdown catch by Schroeder and a 1-yard plunge from Connor Ramage.

On the ensuing possession for Manitowoc (2-3, 2-3 FRCC), it faced a 4th-and-1 at Ashwaubenon’s 5-yard line, and Brett Prange found the end zone to cut it to 14-7.

After a 36-yard field goal by Ashwaubenon kicker Micky Kiernan, Opperman picked off a Manitowoc pass.

The Jaguars were forced to punt, but the returner muffed the punt and Noah Leisgang jumped on the loose ball.

A couple plays later, Vang hit Antjaun Polk for a 9-yard touchdown to make it 24-7 before halftime.

Opperman’s interception and ensuing plays were critical to Ashwaubenon’s victory.

“It changed the complexity of the game,” Schroeder said. “Without that, we don’t have the confidence. Our defense played an awesome game – props to them.”

Schroeder scored on a 65-yard jet sweep and then had a touchdown catch on a rollout by Vang for a 25-yard strike to end the scoring.

The Ashwaubenon coaching staff knew it had a mismatch with Schroeder versus the Manitowoc defensive backs, and they wanted to exploit that.

“I think they had a plan to try and stop the run, and we thought if we could get off the line of scrimmage, he could run by some people,” Ryczkowski said. “I think our offensive line’s doing a great job running the ball, then teams are trying to respect that and try to stop it. It was a nice night to throw it, and we were able to hit a couple of those big ones.”

Ashwaubenon’s defense played well, surrendering three points in the final 33 minutes of the game.

Manitowoc had the ball inside the Jaguars’ 5 twice in the second half.

Opperman said the defense has been so successful this season because all the guys worked hard during the summer.

“Working together, communicating, working out, getting stronger together and communicating,” Opperman said. “But overall, we have that togetherness.”

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