'All Together' Onekama Seeks 1st Football Title

November 16, 2018

By Chris Dobrowolski
Special for Second Half

ONEKAMA — The Upper Peninsula is soon to be invaded by Portagers.

The village of Onekama, meanwhile, might resemble a ghost town.

A large and loyal following for the Onekama football team is geared up for a trip to the Superior Dome in Marquette, site of Saturday’s 8-Player Division 2 Football Final, where the Portagers (10-2) are taking on Rapid River (9-3) in their quest for the school’s first MHSAA football championship.

“It’s really energized the community,” said Onekama head coach John Neph. “I’m so happy that our local community has responded so well. It means so much to have this special event going on.”

Yard signs and window decorations have sprung up all over town. Residents have stepped forward to find out how they can aid the team during its journey to the championship game, while fans have shown up to games in droves as the team has advanced farther in the postseason, past the likes of Marion (22-6), Brethren (52-0) and Portland St. Patrick (28-14).

“Everyone’s supporting us. The community here is amazing, especially for the football program,” said running back/linebacker Ben Acton. “We had the most people we’ve ever had for our games in the playoffs this year. It’s awesome seeing everybody out there in the stands and after the games.”

The Portagers have given their fans plenty to cheer about. The program had four playoff wins all-time entering this season, and they have nearly doubled that total with this playoff run.

Getting to the championship game wasn’t at the forefront of Onekama’s goals this season, but it hasn’t come as a complete shock, either. The Portagers had five seniors and three top juniors returning to a squad that went 9-2 in 2017.

“We thought we could be pretty good,” said Neph. “Then we had a really good preseason camp, and we got better. We were very pleasantly surprised with the overall development of our players. Our guys have gotten better and better as the season has gone on.”

It’s a squad that has embraced the team aspect of the game. Sure, there are standouts — Acton and  junior running back/linebacker Aaron Powers have been playmakers on both sides of the ball, senior Rylan Clarke has led from his tight end position, and senior Wyatt Lawson and junior Wade Sedlar anchor the offensive and defensive lines, respectively — but the Portagers relish functioning as one cohesive unit.

“This isn’t one person’s team. Or the coaches’ team. It’s our team,” said Neph. “It’s all of us together. That has made a huge difference with the morale, and the long run we’ve had. Sometimes at the end of a season you can get tired of going to practice, and I don’t think we’ve ever experienced that. It’s a group of guys that like coming out here, enjoy working with each other. We have some fun, and we’ve been winning, which helps.”

Onekama has proven it can score points, having topped the 50-point plateau four times. The Portagers like to be known as a stout defensive team, though. They’ve backed that up by shutting out four teams this year, not counting two forfeit victories.

“We really take pride in our defense,” said senior defensive back Ben Johnson, one of four defensive players to receive accolades on the all-Midwest Central Michigan Conference West teams. “We’re a defensive team but our offense — when it clicks, it clicks too.”

The Portagers finished third in the West after they had tough losses to league champion Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (28-26) and runner-up Suttons Bay (13-8). Neph felt like the loss to Suttons Bay, which came two weeks before the start of the postseason, ignited Onekama’s push through the playoffs.

“We lost it late in the game on a long pass,” said Neph. “It felt like we were about to win the game, and to have it taken away from us like that, that was tough. I’m extremely proud of our guys. That’s where the upperclassmen stepped forward and said, ‘We lost today, but we’re going to bounce back and keep going.’ I would say that was a significant turning point for us. We got back to work and moved forward from there.”

The Portagers have reeled off four straight wins and whipped the entire school and community into a frenzy.

“It’s great,” Clarke said of the atmosphere at school. “Our math teacher looked at us today and said, ‘I still can’t believe you guys are going to the Finals.’ Our student support is tremendous. For a small community like us, this is great.”

Advancing this deep into the postseason has created a lot of additional planning and extra responsibilities for Neph and his staff, including making arrangements for hotel accommodations, transportation and meals for the team. He wouldn’t want to have it any other way, with the opportunity to win a Finals championship.

“It would just be an unbelievable, historical moment for our school to win the state championship,” he said. “It would be the crowning event of a lot of people putting hours and hours and hours of work into the football program. For the players, it would be the ultimate experience for them. Something that will last the rest of their lives.”

Win or lose, this season and this playoff performance already has created a deep bond among the 18 players on this year’s Onekama squad.

“We’re brothers,” said Clarke. “We’ll probably be brothers for the rest of our lives. We’ll probably all be coaching our kids together when we’re 30 and 40.”

Chris Dobrowolski has covered northern Lower Peninsula sports since 1999 at the Ogemaw County Herald, Alpena News, Traverse City Record-Eagle and currently as sports editor at the Antrim Kalkaska Review since 2016. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Onekama’s Ben Acton (5) finds an opening among four Portland St. Patrick defenders during last week’s Semifinal win. (Middle) Luke Mauntler (7) drags along two Manistee Catholic Central defenders during a Week 6 victory. (Photos courtesy of the Onekama athletic department.)

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)