LAST MEETING: Lakeland 20, Rhinelander 14 - Sept. 16, 2016
WHAT'S AT STAKE: The Northwoods Axe. It's the third time the schools have played for the Axe, a trophy trade idea created by the schools in conjuction with The Lakeland Times and The Northwoods River News. Lakeland has won each of the first two Axe Games after Rhinelander turned the ball over deep in Lakeland territory driving for a potential game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter of both contests. Also at stake is avoiding the Great Northern Conference basement. The loser of this game will be relegated to sole possession of last place in the GNC.
NOTEABLE: Since the two teams renewed their rivalry in 2005, Lakeland is 10-3 in the series ... Rhinelander - which snapped a 23-game GNC losing streak last week - is looking for back-to-back wins in the conference for the first time since 2012, when it beat Ashland and Lakeland in succession.
It's the final week of the football season for Lakeland Union High School. It's the eighth in a row that won't include a playoff game, but there is still something to play for this week.
It's Axe Week, the Northwoods Axe that is. Lakeland and Rhinelander are once again set to reignite a bitter rivalry, one that Lakeland has largely controlled in recent years.
The Thunderbirds have won the last five games against the Hodags - including both Axe games since the trophy was created in 2015 - and have won 10 of the 13 games since the rivalry was restarted in 2005.
Perhaps even more incentive to win this game is that the loser will finish in last place in the Great Northern Conference.
That spot has been reserved for Rhinelander since 2014, but the Hodags are riding high after using a goal line stand to beat Ashland last week, snapping a 23-game losing streak in conference play.
"There are only 48 minutes left to play with this team and the coaching staff that we have," LUHS head coach Dan Barutha said. "There are a lot of fleeting opportunities in life and this is a situation where I want to make sure the guys - especially the seniors - really enjoy every minute of practice because, for some of them, this is the last time they'll ever be able to play competitive football for the rest of their lives.
"There's nothing like Friday night lights," Barutha continued. "It's a tremendous opponent and a great opportunity to play for the Northwoods Axe, but also to play a team we're very familiar with."
A season that was once fueled by high expectations hit rock bottom last Friday night in Northern Michigan University's Superior Dome, losing to Marquette 55-6.
The T-Birds entered the game down 10 starters due to injuries, no playoff aspirations and some - not all - played that way.
This week may be one of the most informative for Barutha during his coaching tenure at Lakeland.
Good programs, in any sport, have players who come to play every week, regardless of the situation or score.
"You're only as strong as your strongest leader and your weakest link and the two need to be in unison to have a really strong program," Barutha said. "Our sophomores that have worked hard, they have been able to get some early playing opportunities and going into next year, they won't be shocked at what varsity football and the game speed is all about."
Lakeland has gone into just about every game this season with a size disadvantage in the trenches. This week, the T-Birds face a team that is relatively equal in size.
One thing that won't change is the Lakeland defense should see a heavy dose of the Hodag rushing attack.
Sophomore Drake Martin is just 88 yards shy of 1,000 for the season and has hit the 100-yard plateau in five games this season.
The T-Bird defense has given up 316 yards per game on the ground this year and have allowed at least 40 points six times, so clearly the focus is going to be on Martin, but Barutha warns against sleeping quarterback Logan Freund as well.
"He's a heck of a player, he's a tough running back, he's hard-nosed kid, he finds gaps, he runs very well," Barutha said of Martin. "And then you look at their quarterback Logan Freund, and yeah, he's completed 35 percent of his passes, but I think those numbers are really misleading because he can beat you over the top. There were times last year when we played them that he was able to do that and take advantage of some things down field."
Freund is completing just 35.8 percent of his passes on 151 attempts this season for 732 yards, six touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
He did throw for 172 yards and ran for another 87 in last year's game at Lakeland, but he was also intercepted by Tyler Carroll four times.
Speaking of turnovers, Lakeland hasn't forced a turnover since the third game of the season. Turnovers can come in bunches, so the T-Birds must be opportunistic this week.
"Turnovers go in spells. Last year it didn't matter what we did, we forced 24 turnovers in the last five games," Barutha said. "We didn't have to work turnover circuit at all. This year we work turnover circuit quite a bit and it's been a dry spell. It really comes down to opportunities as they present themselves and the belief in the system and the scheme."
It's unusual to think that the last game of the season, one with no playoff implications, can be viewed as a must-win game. This one very well may be.
Programs are built on a talent and the work that talent puts in during the offseason. Players are often more apt to put in effort during the offseason with a reward of having a good season at the other end.
Injuries and inconsistency have ravaged Lakeland's high hopes this year, so winning the final game of the season is crucial. The T-Birds can either enter the offseason on a high note or on a six-game losing skid.
"I think every week is a must-win game," Barutha said. "You only play nine, so you only have nine weeks to go on the field with the guys that you have and play for the pride of your school district and your local communities. I think this week is as must-win as every other week. Our guys want to win, we want to win, we're going to do whatever it takes to win. We've had a lot of unlucky breaks and injuries, but nobody feels sorry for us and nor should they. We don't feel sorry for ourselves. It's the next man up and we just have to continue to improve."
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @SabatoNick.