Rebels retain the Little Brown Jug - again
Missing a majority of last football season with a broken left hand, running back Isaac Riihiluoma admitted it wasn't easy standing on the sidelines watching his Moose Lake-Willow River teammates play.
Healthy now and playing in his final season-opener last Thursday, Riihiluoma showed in his return that he still wasn't the easiest to defend out of the backfield.
Riihiluoma rushed for 154 yards and three touchdowns, while backfield mate Bryceton Butkiewicz added 163 yards and two TDs on the ground and threw for another in the Rebels' 40-0 defeat of nearby Barnum last week before an overflowing crowd in Willow River.
ML-WR's shutout was the third in the past four meetings for the pair of high school rivals and the Rebels retained the Little Brown Jug in the process.
Since taking over in 1999, ML-WR coach Dave Louzek has gone 11-0 versus Barnum. Since 1984, the Rebels are 21-5 against their neighbors. The last victory for Barnum in the series was in 1998.
Riihiluoma, who tore for TD runs of 70, 54 and 5 yards, said every regular-season game is a chance to improve, but he was quick to admit keeping the Jug on their sideline for more than a decade is pretty neat.
"The main goal is to get better and better and better," said the fleet-footed 5-foot-9, 155-pound senior. "But when you have a little rivalry with Barnum just up the road, it's always nice to get a win. And the Little Brown Jug is just a little reminder."
Riihiluoma and Butkiewicz didn't waste time reminding the area that they are arguably the toughest 1-2 punch to defend, as Riihiluoma rolls with shiftiness and speed, while Butkiewicz — at 6-feet and 205 pounds — brings bruising strength and power. Case in point came last week when the senior duo had a hand in every single Rebel touchdown.
Butkiewicz ran for scores of 65 and 6 yards and even threw a 15-yard touchdown to teammate Anakin Oswald in the second quarter. Riihiluoma said his classmate will go under center occasionally, quickly admitting he is a more worthy quarterback than himself.
"I tried in seventh grade, but I couldn't even catch the snap," said Riihiluoma with a laugh. "They just stuck me at running back and I've been there ever since."
That isn't a bad thing, as the Rebels (1-0) rely on running the football and moving the chains. Despite plenty of new faces on both the offensive and defensive lines, Louzek's program is not rebuilding, but reloading. Yet that doesn't mean the 10-time defending Section 7AA champions won’t have competition. The Rebels always get everyone's best effort.
"There are lots of good programs out there that are working just as hard or harder than our kids, hoping to beat Moose Lake-Willow River," said Louzek. "It's a huge motivator knowing that all of these programs are gunning for us and we have to be ready for all of them."
"Just because it says Rebels across our chest doesn't meant anything," added Riihiluoma. "We have to bring our A game and be prepared because they are coming for us. We have to be ready every week."
Expect a heavy dose of Riihiluoma and Butkiewicz each week this fall, as their yardage and touchdown numbers will continue to soar. Yet don't think for a second they don't appreciate the gaping holes created by their big buddies. The biggest, 6-2, 280-pound senior Sam Coil — a state shot-put thrower in the spring — is also their strongest. Not only leading the way on the line but also in the weight room, Coil will soon have lifted a Rebel record 1,500 pounds in four lifts combined, including the bench press, incline bench press, squat and hang clean.
"We've had a lot of big strong kids over the years," said Louzek, "but nobody has ever reached 1,500 pounds. That's his goal."
"We could not do anything without the line in front of us," said Riihiluoma of Coil and his teammates, noting that Louzek has created a culture of team-first attitudes, not revolving around nicknames, statistics or winning streaks. "Freshmen to seniors, every guy in there is as important as the next one."
Louzek agreed, noting that work still needs to be done. The Rebels host Spectrum Friday and travel to rival Esko the next week in another must-see matchup.
Speaking of must-see athletes, Louzek and ML-WR have a great story within their program. Sophomores Danny Lilya and Bo Moffett are two of the most inspiring students wearing the Rebels red. Lilya, who was born without the use of his legs, is the team's placeholder, holding for all extra-point and field goal attempts. Moffett, meanwhile, was born with Williams Syndrome, which is often characterized by medical problems, including cardiovascular disease, developmental delays and learning disabilities, often side-by-side with striking verbal abilities and highly social personalities, according to williams-syndrome.org. Moffett played during the last snap against the Bombers.
"They are both great kids," Louzek said. "It's just a great experience for the two of them to be part of the Rebel program and be treated like all the other football players."
"It's an opportunity to get out there and play with everyone," added Riihiluoma. "It's pretty special."
Meanwhile in Barnum, second-year coach Mike Klyve and his Bombers (0-1) are still seeking their first victory under his tenure. Last year the team finished 0-9.
Still, eight starters on both offense and defense return, giving Klyve and his boys much optimism this fall, especially on Friday when they host Deer River in the home-opener. Expect the hillside in Barnum to be busy with blankets and fans.
An upbeat Klyve said they are hoping that first W comes soon. When it does, watch out in Section 7A.
"It's tough to lose this many in a row, but we're moving in the right direction," Klyve said. "Getting that first win will feel good. They're hungry for it; they want it. The way they're working, you can tell they want to get it.
"We're hoping to put together a full game and play to our full potential Friday night," Klyve continued. "We're going to go try find that [victory]. It's out there."