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Wildcats happy to be home

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

During the last three seasons, Thunder Ridge and Wallace County High Schools have always met up in the Eight-Man Division II playoffs. Thunder Ridge hosted each game in Kensington and the Wildcats had to travel more than 170 miles. The initial two meetings came in the first round of the playoffs and last year's game was a sub-state championship contest. Thunder Ridge won all three meetings, 76-42, 46-0, and 44-22 last season. The last two meetings helped the Longhorns win a state title in 2011 and a runner-up last season.

In the offseason and at various coaching clinics and meetings, Wallace County coach Kevin Ayers told Thunder Ridge coach Jerry Voorhees that he wanted a home game.

"He said, 'Man, I am so sick and tired of going to Kensington,' " Voorhees said. "He said, 'I don't care how we've got to figure this out, you are coming to us this year.' Here we go. It will be a fun, football game. We have been very fortunate, very lucky to have really good kids the last two or three years."

On Tuesday, Ayers received his wish. Wallace County, 9-0 and ranked No. 2 in Eight-Man Division II in the statewide media poll, will play host to 7-1 Thunder Ridge in the first round of the postseason. Start time is 6 p.m. Central time.

"Riding on a bus that long, you would just rather be at home," Ayers said.

The Wildcats stand No. 1 in eight-man in scoring defense at 34 points allowed, and Thunder Ridge is fifth at 120 points.

"We have got a good hard-nosed, physical football team," Voorhees said. "The kids play hard, and they don't quit. They just keep fighting. I know that's the way that Coach Ayers coaches his kids and it will be a heck of a ball game."

The Longhorns enjoy a big offensive line and speedy junior running back Trent Rietzke (1,314 yards).

"One of the big keys to the game," Ayers said. "He is so quick and runs with such great vision and the offensive line that he has in front of him is so big and physical, that's why they have done so well this year and years past. They really gap you up front and give Rietzke the ball and let him do his stuff. We've got to get him stopped before he gets going."

Both teams had a week off last Thursday. Thunder Ridge had a regular scheduled bye, while Wallace County received a forfeit against Wheatland-Grinnell.

"I really look forward to it," Thunder Ridge senior fullback Garrett Krueger said. "I like having tests, and it's a good one to start out with."

Wallace County had dealt with several injuries, but should be fine for Tuesday. Senior all-state nose guard Dalton Walker missed three games with a knee injury. Ayers said Walker could have played, but held the lineman out until he was fully healthy. Senior lineman Tyrell Springsteel broke his wrist and missed a game earlier in the year, but has played in the last two contests and leads the team with 7.5 sacks.

"It's nice to have the extra preparation time," Ayers said. "This is usually such a short turnaround Thursday to a Tuesday. That was nice, but it's also made it a really long week. This time of year, your kids are ready to play. To have this much preparation time was good and it was bad. They sure are ready for Tuesday to get here."

Ayers has won three state titles, two at Jetmore and the 2007 Eight-Man Division II title with the Wildcats. Wallace County has faced a quality schedule with four wins against playoff teams, including 8-1 Hoxie (36-28) and a neutral site victory versus 6-2 Hanover (22-6). This season's squad features seven seniors, six that have been in the program all four years.

"Like I told our coaches, if we can't play with them with a week and a half to prepare for them, then we aren't ever going to play with them," Voorhees said.

Wallace County has forced 20 turnovers and carries a plus-18 turnover margin. Senior quarterback Kyle Gfeller has 731 all-purpose yards, 18 scores and six interceptions.

"Having that leadership and that stability on your team with that many seniors is definitely a big blessing for us," Ayers said. "As far as leadership across the board in the senior class, it's one of those teams that just has a lot of seniors that really care and are motivated to do well."