PREVIEW: Win over West Bend West Friday assures OHS of at least a tie for the 2015 WLT title

IMG_0265File photo by Malcolm McIntyre

Then sophomore quarterback Ben Nienhuis (#4) threw for 286 yards last season at West Bend West as OHS won 24-0

Just one season removed from last-place finish, OHS football team poised to finish atop conference for second time in three years

Last season, both West Bend West and OHS suffered through dismal, disappointing seasons. Each finished 1-6 in the Wisconsin Little Ten and tied for last place.

This season, the story–so far–has been the same for West, but OHS has rebounded in a big way. West, with two games left to play in the WLT is 0-5 while OHS is alone in first place with a perfect 5-0 mark.

Both teams came into 2015 with high hopes and after the first two games, both were riding high with identical 2-0 records after impressive nonconference wins. West opened its season by smashing Kettle Moraine Lutheran, 56-7. It then stepped up a bit, defeating Two Rivers, 21-14. OHS, playing a much tougher schedule, defeated two teams from the Classic Eight conference, Kettle Moraine and Waukesha South.

So the third game of the season became the turning point for both teams. In its game, which opened the WLT season, West was hammered 55-26 by Slinger. Apparently in shock, the Spartans were then shot down by Watertown, 47-3. Given that Slinger and Watertown are both 4-1 teams going into this week’s play, West expected its next opponent, Beaver Dam, to be an easier challenge. It wasn’t, as the Golden Beavers won 35-27.

Last week, in the annual cross-town rivalry, West lost again, this time to the team that shares its buildings and football stadium, West Bend East. East slipped past West, 26-20, in overtime. The two teams were tied 7-7 at the end of the first quarter, with West, behind 13 second quarter points, taking a 20-13 lead at the half. East managed a third quarter score to tie the game at 20-20 and when no team could score in the final quarter, it went into overtime, where East prevailed, leaving West winless through the conference’s first five games.

Cooney, meanwhile, has forged its way to the top spot with wins over East, Beaver Dam, Hartford, Wisconsin Lutheran, and Slinger. When OHS defeated Slinger, 28-14, for the Owls first loss of the season, Slinger out of a first-place tie with OHS.

Fans attending Friday night’s game at Ed Rux Stadium should see a somewhat strange sight: an opponent that passes first and runs second. West is led by quarterback Hunter Johnson, the conference’s second leading passer behind Cooney’s Ben Nienhuis. So far in six games, Johnson has thrown for 1,108 yards, six touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He has completed 76 of 147 pass attempts.

By comparison, Nienhuis has completed 142 of his 227 attempts for 1,789 yards. Nienhuis also leads the conference in touchdown passes (24) and in average yards per contest at 256 a game. Johnson averages 185 yards a game.

Johnson’s top targets are Jack Thelen and Anthony Schloss, both with just over 300 yards and 20 catches. Cooney counters with Zach Clayton, the conference’s top receiver, Clayton has 43 receptions for 733 yards and 12 touchdowns. OHS also has Ethen Wegner, with 7 TD catches this season and tight end Brett Samson who has 24 receptions for 327 yards. Samson’s totals top those of Thelen and Schloss.

Neither team relies much on its ground game. West has ground out 782 yards (111 a game) so far this season while Cooney has 837 (125 a game).

On paper, the game should be an interesting matchup as none of Cooney’s opponents this season has tried to win through the air. All have tried to move the ball on the ground and pass only when it was the best option.

Facing a team that passes at least as much as it runs means Cooney defense will be tested in ways he has not tested this season.

OHS is not a big team and its defensive backs may find the 6-3 Thelen a tough matchup as he will have a decided height advantage in jump ball opportunities. If Thelen and Johnson have success early don’t be surprised so see OHS use Clayton in defense. Clayton has the size, speed, and toughness to counter Thelen.

So far this season, Cooney opponents have passed for an average of 139 yards a game and rushed for 143 yards a game or 282 yards per game. West has passed for 176 yards a game and rushed for 112, giving it a per game total offense of 288. OHS, for comparison purposes, is averaging 395 yards a game in total offense: 256 passing and 139 rushing.

Those numbers might not suggest a 5-0 record for OHS (7-0 overall), but the high-flying Cooney offense, featuring Air Nienhuis, has scored enough points (246 in all or 35 a game) to ensure no opponent has earned a win against the Raccoons in 2015.

Last season, OHS defeated West at West Bend, 21-0, for its only win. The game was a coming out of sorts for two of this season’s brightest stars: Nienhuis and Clayton. Nienhuis completed 18 of 28 passes for 268 yards. Clayton caught 10 of those throws for 193 yards as OHS scored in each of the first three quarters to earn the win. Cooney scores came from Casey Zwart (two touchdowns) and Nienhuis (a rushing TD).

A Cooney win Friday night assures the team will earn the WLT title, regardless of what happens on Oct. 16 at Watertown. At worst, OHS, if it defeats West, but losses to Watertown would tie for the title. A win at Watertown and on Friday night would give OHS a clear uncontested title and a perfect 7-0 conference record. It would also ensure that OHS receives a higher seed in the WIAA D1 playoffs, and at least one more home game, if not two.


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