A long journey: Oscoda readies for playoff matchup in Iron Mountain

Nothing has come easy for the Oscoda football team.

Despite finishing the regular season 8-1 and riding an eight-game win streak into the playoffs, it’s taken a while for the Owls to enjoy the kind of dominance they displayed during the 2018 season.

Oscoda went through a tough 14 year drought of not only missing the playoffs, but failing to put together a winning season and struggling along the way with a pair of winless years during that stretch and three consecutive one-win seasons.

The program looks a lot different than what it did during those times and the Owls is slowly starting to make their mark.

Oscoda snapped that 14 year playoff drought in 2015 under then head coach Dave LeVasseur by going 6-4.

The reigns were handed in 2016 to Mark Whitley, an assistant under LeVasseur, who began changing the program’s culture.

Now in his third season, Whitley and the Owls are back in the playoffs for the second straight season. Whitley has witnessed the growth of players during his first year who are now senior leaders and pivotal playmakers.

“Three out of the last four years in the playoffs is special. The kids are excited, the coaches are excited, the community is excited and it’s just a great feeling,” Whitley said. “As exciting as it is, we also understand that this is a business trip.”

The Owls are now chasing some history after their long journey back to prominence, but Oscoda will face a long road test Saturday in a Division 7 pre-district matchup against Iron Mountain.

Kickoff is scheduled for noon, central time.

Despite making the playoffs three of the last four years, Oscoda has failed to win a postseason game since 2000 and is just 1-4 overall in playoff games.

Not only can the Owls win their first playoff game in nearly two decades, but a win Saturday would tie a school record for most wins in a season at nine, a number that has stood since 1964.

“We saw a lot of character in our kids after that Week 1 loss. We lost a close game that first week and it felt terrible so we talked and a made it a point not to feel like that again. Since that week, we haven’t lost and kept the intensity up and have been playing good football,” Whitley said. “The kids are starting to understand what it takes to be a good program. We know we are talented. Our defense sparks our offense and it has been a special year. It’s an exciting time, but we’re putting 8-1 behind us because everyone is 0-0 right now.”

The Owls have been led all season by quarterback Brayden Mallak and will need the junior signal caller to keep up his stellar play if Oscoda hopes to keep its season alive.

Mallak has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes, going 45-for-76 on the year with 1,060 yards and 14 touchdowns. Mallak also leads the team in rushing attempts with 113 carries for 447 yards and eight scores.

Oscoda’s potent ground attack is led by a two-headed monster in the backfield. Juniors Andrew Dault and Robert Host have carved up opposing defenses on their way to more than 1,200 yards combined yards on the ground.

Dault leads the Owls with 732 yards on 75 carries and four touchdowns. Host toted the rock 51 times for 510 yards and leads the team with nine rushing touchdowns.

Along with stellar play from the quarterback and running backs, sophomore sensation Owen Franklin has done it all this year for the Owls.

Franklin has 1,107 all-purpose yards to go along with 19 total touchdowns. Franklin has been Mallak’s go-to receiver as he leads the team with 26 catches for 627 yards and nine touchdowns. Franklin also has six touchdowns on the ground and has thrown three touchdown passes, along with returning an interception back for a score.

The amount of weapons Oscoda has gives offensive coordinator Dean Caldwell plenty of options and Caldwell has gotten the most out of a talented offensive unit that averages 43 points per game and has scored 392 total points this season. Oscoda is just seven points from setting a new single-season program record for points scored.

“Being the JV head coach before and having so much success with these same kids has really translated to the varsity level in ways a lot of people didn’t think would,” Caldwell said. “The coaching staff is great. They put a lot of confidence in me and the kids really deserve a lot of the credit. My hat is off to them and it’s their record to break if we are fortunate enough to break it with a big win.”

As electrifying as Oscoda’s offense is, the defense has been shutting down opponents all year and has allowed just 77 points this season.

The defensive unit is led up front by a core group of defensive lineman and linebackers. Junior Christian Ward leads Oscoda in tackles and the dominant play up front by seniors Davin Gream, Jacob Condor and Nathan Moeller have been critical. Adam Hein, Nimai Schallnau and Caleb Nagel have each played important roles for the Owls this season.

Again, nothing will come easy for Oscoda.

Iron Mountain finished the regular season 7-2 with its only two losses coming against playoff teams.

The Mountaineers love to air it out and are led by quarterback Marcus Johnson. In the team’s regular season finale, Johnson completed 9-of-12 passes for 375 yards and four touchdowns.

Johnson’s go-to target is Charlie Gerhard who had a pair of receiving touchdowns in the finale and finished the year with first team all conference honors as a tight end and defensive end. Caleb Evosevich-Hynes and Colin Visintainer are also capable playmaking receivers and Johnson spreads the ball around and also has the ability to hurt opposing defenses with his legs.

The two teams possess high-scoring offenses and today’s game has the potential to be a shootout.

“We know Iron Mountain has some skill players and we don’t take anyone lightly. We’ve been in some competitive games all year and this one should be no different,” Whitley said. “It’s been a tremendous season so far. The support from the town and community is unbelievable and that really goes a long way in building a program. We’re happy to have the support and the opportunity.”