Cardinals hoping hard work pays off in postseason return

For the last few weeks, the Onaway football team has been in playoff mode, needing every win it can get to keep its postseason hopes alive.

Thankfully for the Cardinals, all that hard work paid off.

Onaway (5-4) returns to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 on Friday when it plays at Suttons Bay in a 8-Player Division 2 pre-regional game.

This is also Onaway’s first time in the 8-Player playoffs since the Cardinals transitioned to 8-Player football in 2015.

After five weeks, the Cardinals found themselves with a 2-3 record and needed a big turnaround to have a shot at the playoffs. They got one as they won three of their last four games, including last week’s 36-8 win over Bellaire.

“It feels great. It’s always a goal to make the playoffs and from day one we set that goal,” Onaway coach Steve Klinge said. “The kids said they wanted to make the playoffs and we put ourselves in position to have a chance.”

With a clean slate in the playoffs, Onaway is hoping the experience gained through nine weeks pays off against a high-powered Suttons Bay squad.

Two years after canceling their season after two games, the Norsemen have found success in 8-Player football. Suttons Bay went 7-4 in their inaugural 8-Player season last year and have steamrolled past opponents in 2018. Suttons Bay averages 41.2 points per game offensively and just 10.6 points per game to opponents. Over the last five weeks of the season the Norsemen have held opponents to single digits four times.

Suttons Bay has shown plenty of ability to score; in nine games the Norsemen topped 40 points six times. But they’ve also shown they can win close games too. In Week 8, Suttons Bay took a chance in the final minute against Onekama and completed a game-winning 45-yard touchdown pass.

“They look big, but we’re used to being undersized so it shouldn’t intimidate us,” Klinge said. “They’ve got a good running game and they’re a good all-around team. We’ve got to make tackles and avoid stupid mistakes.”

To make up for any size disadvantage, Klinge is counting on his stable of playmakers to come up big. Onaway has shown it can score with ease at times and averages 31.5 points per game.

Chief among those is quarterback Gavin Fenstermaker, who has made plays on the ground and through the air for Onaway. Fenstermaker has 500 passing yards on the season and four touchdowns and 885 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. Dawson Hilliker isn’t far behind with 562 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He’s Onaway’s main receiving threat too with 324 reception yards and three scores.

Fenstermaker and Hilliker have been among Onaway’s breakout stars this season after stepping up to fill key roles vacated by graduated stars such as Lucas Tollini and Trevor Wregglesworth. Klinge entrusted Fenstermaker with leading Onaway’s offense and the senior has responded in spades.

“I told him the ball’s going to be in your hands, so be ready to go and Gavin was ready. I think he’s been ready to have the ball,” Klinge said. “(The seniors) have that feeling like, ‘We’re seniors and it’s our time to shine and step up.'”

Klinge has been impressed with his team’s ability to persevere this season and hopes the Cardinals can embrace the win-or-go home mentality again on Friday.

“We hope (the regular season helped). We had our chances against Posen and Pellston and we didn’t get it done,” Klinge said. “The way the kids have responded, it’s exactly that (a playoff mentality) and hopefully we have that same mentality (Friday).”