Wildcats aiming to slow Gaylord in Big North opener

What’s next?

For the Alpena football team, that’s the mentality as it approaches every new week of football.

Win or lose, there’s always the next rep, the next practice, the next game and the next game after that.

“We’ve got guys that are working hard to get better every day and they’re not satisfied with any kind of performance,” Alpena coach Aaron Sims said. “That’s a testament to this group of guys.”

So despite the fact that the Wildcats are 2-0 for the first time in 14 years and the winning start has been a shot in the arm for the program, they’re not satisfied yet.

“We’re just going to put those two games behind us and act like we’re 0-0 right now,” junior running back Jordan Schultz said. “We’re just going to keep working hard, executing well in practice and giving max effort.”

Alpena’s latest test against Gaylord tonight– the Big North Conference opener for both teams–could be considered a must-win for both teams even though there’s a lot of football left to play.

Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Gaylord Middle School.

For the past several years, there’s been a lot riding on the matchup. In 2014, the Wildcats spoiled Gaylord’s playoff hopes with a 21-9 win. The next season, Gaylord clinched a playoff spot with a 45-7 win over the Wildcats.

Gaylord has won the last two matchups with the games being decided by seven and six points respectively.

Tonight’s winner moves to 3-0 and is halfway to a playoff berth. For the loser, a loss is a break in momentum and a lost opportunity with some tough Big North Conference opponents coming up on the schedule.

“They’re obviously going to be harder. The games are worth more (because) they’re conference games,” Schultz said. “We’ve just got to focus up and work hard.”

The Blue Devils have looked impressive in two games under new coach Shawn Sargent and are 2-0 for the first time since 2015. Gaylord defeated Lansing Sexton 23-19 in its opener and topped Gladstone 42-34 last week.

With one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Big North, along with an experienced quarterback and versatile athletes, the Blue Devils are more than capable of being a tough matchup for any team they face.

Senior quarterback Ryan Stefanski has looked like a season pro for Gaylord and gives the Blue Devils a dual threat under center. He was 7-of-9 passing for 104 yards and a touchdown in the opener, but scored the winning touchdown a 76-yard run late in the third quarter.

Last week, Stefanski’s late touchdown pass guaranteed another win for Gaylord, but he was a force on the ground with 194 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.

Sims and his staff got a firsthand look at Stefanski and the Blue Devils last Thursday and he knows the Wildcats will have to play well defensively to limit the effectiveness of Stefanski’s arm and Gaylord’s rushing attack.

“They have some super elusive guys that can round around. Their quarterback, he can sling it all over the place,” Sims said. “We were there watching them last week. Dude (Stefanski) is fast, he’s slippery and we’re going to have to tackle very well.”

Alpena has shown the ability to finish strong in wins over Escanaba and Sault Ste. Marie, but the difference between a win and a loss tonight will likely come down to defense. The Wildcats came through last week, stopped Sault on a crucial fourth down late in the game and they’ll need another strong defensive effort against Gaylord.

“We’ve gotta block well and we have to tackle well. At the end of the day, that’s the game is blocking and tackling and we’ve got to go out and do that with fanatical effort every single play,” Sims said. “It’s Gaylord. They have their system and they put super athletic guys back there that can run around. When you do that for a couple years and done it together, that makes it tough for defenses.”