Lincoln out to earn playoff berth, prove last year was no 'fluke season' in finale vs. Milan
Daniel Brenner | AnnArbor.com
Last year around this time, Lincoln players were celebrating the first playoff berth in school history.
This year, the stakes may be even higher.
Lincoln heads into a Week 9 AnnArbor.com “Game of the Week” matchup with Milan looking for a playoff-clinching sixth win of the season. The game earned 996 of 1,455 votes in the AnnArbor.com Game of the Week poll.
For players and coaches, the expectations have been higher all year, and a win over an undefeated Big Reds team would prove that the program wasn’t a flash in the pan.
“I think it would be more rewarding to get the second (playoff berth),” senior linebacker and tight end Bryton Boyle said. “It shows that it wasn’t a fluke season, it shows that we’re not a joke team, we’re not to be taken lightly."
The Railsplitters topped rival Ypsilanti last week, 26-14, moving to 5-3 and setting up what is likely a do-or-die game on Friday.
At five wins, Lincoln is still playoff-eligible. But as No. 39 on the statewide playoff points list among teams one win shy of a berth, it’s unlikely anything less than six wins will do the trick.
“There would have to be a miraculous weekend by the SEC,” Lincoln coach Chris Westfall said. “Pretty much everyone on our schedule would have to win, and even then it would be close. We have to win to get in.”
Last year's season, which ended at 6-4, marked the end of a 12-year stretch of losing seasons. The fact that there are expectations this year, and that not making the playoffs would be a disappointment, is a mark of progress to Westfall.
"If this was the first year, and we were over .500, this place would be going crazy," Westfall said. "But it’s not, because expectations are higher, which is kind of what you want.”
To return to the postseason, Lincoln will have to get by an 8-0 Milan team looking for the school’s first undefeated regular season since 1997. Milan has won each of its last three games by three touchdowns or more, including a 41-0 win over Carleton Airport last week.
Milan, though, has a league title, playoff berth and likely home playoff game all wrapped up.
Lincoln, meanwhile, is approaching the week like the playoffs are already underway.
“Playoffs start now,” Boyle said. “This is it for some of these seniors. We’ve got to put it together.”
Once Friday rolls around, Lincoln knows it will have to contend with a team that plays with plenty of intensity coming off its first shutout win of the year.
“Defensively they play with a lot of pressure,” Westfall said. “We’re trying to make sure we have some answers to the way they attack. That team plays very hard, so we have to match that.”
The game marks the restart of a matchup between two schools located nine miles apart. As former Southeastern Conference rivals, the two faced off every year for three decades until 2006, six years after Milan jumped to the Huron League.
Westfall said he made a push to have the matchup added back to the schedule shortly after he became coach in 2007, in an effort to re-establish local rivalries.
The game is particularly meaningful for the Lincoln seniors. Last year, they joined a team that made school history.
Now, they hope to leave one that can be a contender for years to come.
“It was nice to be a junior, first year on varsity, to be a part of a playoff team for the first time ever,” senior running back and linebacker Will Russell said. “But being a senior and doing it again, that just sets the tone for years to come.”