Reliving the ups and downs of football season

Am I the only one who’s shocked by how fast the high school football season flew by?

It seems like just yesterday teams were kicking off to start the year and yet the playoffs start tonight.

There were some surprises and some ups-and-downs on gridirons across Northeast Michigan, but after nine weeks of football, Hillman is the only team left standing. It’s surprising to see just one local team in the playoffs considering three or four are usually good for a postseason berth. But three other teams had a fighting chance entering Week 9 and that’s all a team can ask for this time of year is to have a shot at the postseason, especially after the grind of nine games.

Of the surprises this season, one of the biggest had to be Mio. For 13 seasons, no matter what kind of team took the field, Mio found a way to get into the playoffs. That streak came to an end three weeks ago when Au Gres defeated the Thunderbolts and also guaranteed their first losing season since 1992. It’s a shock to see the Thunderbolts done so soon, but Mio played some tough teams to start the year and was tripped up a few times along the way. Considering the Thunderbolts lost a sizable chunk of offensive talent from a team that went 7-2 last year, it’s still impressive to see them finish out the year 4-5 and end with a stunning victory over Alcona.

Speaking of the Tigers, they were a different team than the one that steamrolled its way to a 9-0 record last season, but under rookie coach Jason Somers, Alcona stuck with what works best: namely running the ball. Brock Franklin blossomed into a star and the Tigers will return several big playmakers next year. Given what they lost in more than 4,000 yards of offense and a lot of heavy-hitting defenders, I thought Alcona might take a step back this year, but the Tigers were in the thick of the playoff hunt most of the year and could certainly be there again next year.

Another shocker, or maybe heartbreaker at this point, is Rogers City’s season. Before the year, Hurons coach Tim Nagy was confident his team was a playoff team and the Hurons certainly did all they could to live up to that expectation. Unofficially they won six games, but a forfeit of their season-opener cost them a postseason chance. That doesn’t take away from what was arguably Rogers City’s best season in several years. The Hurons were ultra-competitive and put up some impressive numbers, especially Jacob Malocha who had a monster season on both sides of the ball: 1,374 rushing yards and 93 tackles. Rogers City will lose a handful of players to graduation, but the players left are experienced and have the talent to shoot for the playoffs next season.

The same goes for Posen where first-year coach Greg Pietsch guided a young, but surprisingly talented Vikings team to a 4-5 record. Replacing a player like Nick Hincka is no easy task, but a handful of players did their best to fill that void and did it well. By the end of the season, Posen had given all it could on the field and came up just short of the postseason. The future likes bright though: numbers are up, conditioning has improved and the Vikings will have Travis Sharpe, Evan Schuch and Skyler Tulgestke among others to make big plays next year.

As the last local team standing, Hillman has a big task ahead tonight against Johannesburg-Lewiston. Two years ago, the battered and bruised Hillman team faced the Cardinals in the playoffs and the result wasn’t pretty. This time around, the task isn’t any easier, but the Tigers have more experience and this group of players-especially Hillman’s senior class-flat out knows how to win, no matter the sport and with the sometimes finicky nature of the playoffs, who knows what will happen this time around.

And then there’s Alpena.

Before the season started, I was ribbed (good-naturedly, I hope) by the Alpena coaching staff because the Wildcats were picked to finish dead last in the Big North Conference standings.

Alpena hasn’t gotten much love from conference pollsters in recent years, but when you go 1-8 for three straight seasons and score less than 100 points in each of those seasons, it makes it difficult to see any glimmer of hope.

This season the Wildcats proved us all wrong and played a lot better than their 4-5 record.

For one thing, the Wildcats were legitimately competitive in every single game they played. Last year, the common refrain was that the Wildcats played good for a half, but once the second half started the game was over.

Not so this year. Under first-year coach Brian Tippman, Alpena’s competitive fire was renewed and players felt confident and with good reason. Change around a few plays here and there and Alpena makes the playoffs easily with at least a 6-3 or 7-2 record. With that in mind, it’s a shame this group can’t have another year together to give it one more shot.

This season, Alpena played arguably some of its most entertaining games in years. I can’t imagine what the crowd was like in Traverse City for the Alpena-TC Central game several weeks ago, but the suspense seemed to build by the second for anyone listening on the radio. Against Traverse City West, Alpena jumped out to a 17-0 lead that made everyone sit up a little straighter, pay closer attention and cheer a bit louder because, frankly, Alpena just doesn’t do that against teams like West.

Of course, there were a few gut punches along the way: the OT loss to Central, the home finale loss to Petoskey, the loss to West during homecoming and the rally by Escanaba in the season opener. But in the larger scale of things, Alpena’s season was a success and let’s hope the Wildcats are trending upward next season.

For one thing, it’s not often an Alpena player puts together a season for the ages the way Jordan Ferguson did. Carrying Alpena’s ground game on his back, Ferguson broke tackles, battled through bumps and bruises and found the end zone a lot on his way to finishing the year with 1,426 yards. Coming into the year, Ferguson set a goal of breaking Alpena’s single-season rushing record and not only did he break it, he obliterated it; not to mention the fact he was two scores away from tying the record for touchdowns in a season by a single player.

Playoff football unfortunately is usually a short ride in this area, so here’s hoping Hillman extends its playoff stay as long as possible.

If not, there’s always next season to look forward to.

James Andersen can be reached via email at sports@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5694. Follow James on Twitter @ja_alpenanews.