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Rogers City thriving in first 8-Player football season

Courtesy Photo/Presque Isle Advance Patrick Mulka (81), Mason Bowden (85) and Gus Bellmore (72) are among several Rogers City players to swoop in for a tackle during a game against Onaway earlier this season. Rogers City is 4-0 so far this season.

ROGERS CITY — Rogers City football coach Jesse Fenstermaker knew his team had potential this season.

But through four games, the Hurons have exceeded his expectations.

In its first season of 8-Player football, Rogers City has taken to it like a hand to a glove. The Hurons are 4-0 for the first time since 2018 and have shut out three of their opponents while averaging better than 32 points a game.

“I knew we had some great pieces, but I didn’t think they’d gel as well as they did this fast,” Fenstermaker said.

Fenstermaker said one of the biggest keys to Rogers City’s success has been the play and leadership of senior linemen Anthony Paull, Gus Bellmore and Dylan Lafleche, among others.

The trio has made plays on both sides of the ball, especially on defense where the Hurons have allowed just eight points.

“It’s cool to see the front end of the defense putting in the work,” Fenstermaker said. “The whole defensive squad and the subs, they take pride in making sure the other teams don’t score. Every week, they seem to up the ante.”

Paull leads Rogers City’s defense with 41 tackles and has 11 sacks, 24 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Lafleche has 36 tackles, 10 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.

Bellmore has 32 tackles, seven sacks, eight tackles for loss and four fumble recoveries.

In Northeast Michigan, many teams have found instant success when they’ve transitioned from 11-Player to 8-Player football.

∫ In 2018, Hillman went 8-2 in its first 8-Player season and made the playoffs.

∫ In 2017, Atlanta shook off several tough seasons and made the playoffs in its first 8-Player campaign.

∫ Posen, the area’s first team to play 8-Player football, had a winning record in its second 8-Player season and made the playoffs in its third

Schools like Onaway, Mio and Au Gres have all found similar success as well.

The Hurons appear destined for such a season, but this year’s success feels sweeter after a rollercoaster season in 2020. After a delayed start to the season, Rogers City went 2-5 and was forced to forfeit a playoff matchup after a COVID-19 outbreak in the Upper Peninsula.

“At the end of the last year, the cancellation of the playoff game, it left a bad taste in their mouths,” Fenstermaker said. “They had a hard time with it and they vowed to come out strong this year and have they!”

Spurred by the chance for a fresh start, the Hurons have thundered out of the gate, defeating Brethren (14-8), Brimley (42-0), Onaway (41-0) and Bessemer (32-0). Offensively, Rogers City has racked up more than 1,200 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. With talent at the skill positions, the Hurons’ attack has kept opponents off balance.

Through four games, quarterback Spencer Whitford has connected on 14-of-27 passes for 324 yards and five scores. Hayden Hentkowski has been his favorite target with nine catches for 243 yards and four scores.

Hentkowski has also been a leader in the backfield, with 352 yards and six scores on 39 carries. Dillon Cook has also been a key contributor, carrying the ball 46 times for 309 yards and five touchdowns.

“Hayden Hentkowski, he’s like a rabbit. He’s like a speedy chicken, he’s so hard to catch. He takes advantage of every tool he has,” Fenstermaker said. “Cook, the way he runs he’s got his own style. He’s a hard-nosed runner with really good speed.”

With each win, Rogers City draws closer to a playoff berth, but Fenstermaker and the Hurons aren’t looking ahead. For now, they’re loving the community support and are thrilled with being on a more competitive playing field with their opponents. Not only is the playing field level, but the move to 8-Player football has returned some familiar foes to Rogers City’s schedule such as Posen, Onaway, and Mio.

“The last couple of years, we’ve had some good athletes and good teams, but we couldn’t compete with some of the teams we were playing,” Fenstermaker said.

Rogers City hosted Posen on Friday in the first matchup with its Presque Isle rival since 2008. The two teams were scheduled to play in 2009, but Posen forfeited the contest during its first 8-Player season.

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