What a difference a month makes.
Four weeks into the football season, the outlook wasn't very good for Northeast Michigan. Four teams had a record that was .500 or worse and the postseason seemed like a pipe dream for the majority of the area's teams.
Fast forward to the last week of the regular season and the outlook has changed considerably. Alcona punched a playoff ticket for the first time in 12 years, Onaway and Mio are on the brink of automatic playoff berths and Hillman will be fighting for a win to finish above .500 and to try and secure an at-large postseason bid.
After a rout of Saginaw Buena Vista, Alcona ended its regular season with an exclamation point and should have a lot of momentum heading into the playoffs. When Dave Schneider took over the program three years ago, he vowed to make it a winner and he's done an excellent job this year with a team that's short on numbers, but loaded with experience.
Two years ago against Tawas in a crucial late-season game, Alcona was stopped just short of the end zone on the game's final play. That's been the story of the Tigers' past two seasons: close, but no cigar. Fast starts and agonizing finishes.
But not this year, not again. Alcona put the hammer down after five weeks and closed out the regular season with three wins behind a bruising defense and a variety of running options, including Nathan Fettes and Cody Franklin.
Onaway has slipped a little the last two weeks and faces a tough matchup against Pickford this week. A win puts the Cardinals in the playoffs and a loss puts them at 5-4, still with a shot, but not a guaranteed one. First-year Onaway coach Brian Whitsitt made the playoffs the Cardinals' goal from the outset and Onaway has worked hard to reach that point. The 10-member junior class that joined Onaway's varsity squad this year has done wonders with Matt Tollini proving to be an able quarterback with two playmaking wideouts in Tommy Auger and Carlos Bautista. Throw in senior Jason Sigsby in the backfield and the Cardinals have shown how dangerous their offense can be.
A 13th consecutive playoff berth looked out of reach for a 1-3 Mio squad after four games. But the 'Bolts leaned on running backs Aaron Wood and Bryson Devers and many of their young players have stepped up and grown with each game to help Mio rebound to 5-3 with a very winnable game against Rogers City coming up. Mio may not have as dynamic a playmaker as Grant Price this year, but the Thunderbolts have pulled out some key wins this season, including one against an Au Gres team that's aiming for the playoffs and has rebounded nicely from some early-season turmoil.
Hillman has been a mystery this season and it's amazing that the Tigers are where they are right now. They've pulled out two wins in the last three weeks, including a come-from-behind win over Oscoda. With low numbers and a lot of inexperience, Hillman certainly isn't the powerhouse running team it's been in previous years, but the Tigers have shown their meddle, even as their backfield options have diminished seemingly by the week. With a matchup against Hale to end the regular season, the odds seem to be in Hillman's favor, but time will tell on whether or not it will be enough for the Tigers' season to continue a week or two longer.
The odd man out of this year's playoff picture is Atlanta, which had to forfeit three wins recently due to the use of an ineligible player. It's an unfortunate obstacle for the Huskies, who would've locked up a playoff berth Friday against Mayville. With a winnable matchup against Gaylord St. Mary to end the season, it's likely that Atlanta will finish 3-5, but if all had gone according to plan, the Huskies might very well be looking at a 6-2 record.
Credit coach Troy Cheedie, his staff and the Huskies' senior class for keeping the team together through a difficult time. As unfortunate as the situation is, this year's Atlanta team knows what it accomplished and there's a lot to be proud of, regardless of what the record book says.
The other local teams left out of this year's postseason-Posen, Alpena and Rogers City-all took their lumps this season, but will have a lot to lean on in 2013.
The Wildcats suffered through a lot of injuries in what's proven to be a very tough Big North season. The level of competition probably isn't going to get any easier next season, but Alpena will have a big senior class and a lot of experienced players returning, especially at the skill positions. Add in some of the players from a JV squad that's won six games this year and the Wildcats could turn a corner next season if things go well.
From the outset of the season, Rogers City was plagued by two things: youth and low numbers. Unfortunately it has resulted in a long season for the Hurons who have won just one game the past two years. On the bright side, Rogers City loses only three seniors next year and should return the majority of its roster. Freshman Quintin Kelly saw some time at quarterback and should return as starter next season if coach Tim Nagy decides to go that route. He's shown he has a strong arm and he'll have a big target in Chris Lopez, who's a playmaker from just about any position. Throw in some defensive pieces and the majority of the offensive line and the Hurons should see some greener pastures.
Posen is fully emersed in the eight-man game now and has shown it's not lacking in ability to put up big numbers. Between Nick Hincka and Brandon Dietz, the Vikings have given opponents fits on the ground, but they haven't always come away with the wins to show for it. Posen will lose some key players to graduation, but several of the underclassmen including receiver Matthew Wisniewski have been contributing all season. The Vikings know their opponents and they have the playmakers, now they just need wins.
With so much riding on the last game of the season, Friday night definitely won't be short on intrigue and excitement on the gridiron.