Hurons staying focused ahead of first playoff game since 2009

ROGERS CITY–The Rogers City football team has had plenty of reasons to be excited this season.

But on the eve of their first playoff appearance in nearly 10 years, the Hurons are all business and aren’t breaking from routine.

“No one’s getting into the hype,” Rogers City coach Jesse Fenstermaker said. “We’re treating this week like another regular season week of practice and they’re down to earth.”

Rogers City (8-1) will host Iron River West Iron County (7-2) at 6 p.m. Friday in a Division 8 pre-district game at Gilpin Field.

For many Rogers City players, Friday’s playoff game may feel somewhat surreal. Many of them have played together since middle school and dreamt of nights like Friday.

So did new assistant coach Matt Ponik, who told the Hurons he expected to see them in the playoffs this season.

Ponik’s proclamation was met with a good deal of skepticism from players and for good reason. Rogers City hadn’t made the postseason since 2009 and struggled mightily against some of the top teams in the North Star League.

But each week the Hurons gained confidence. Suddenly the wins started to pile up and they weren’t getting pushed around. It turned out Ponik was on to something and the players started to believe.

Suddenly making the playoffs wasn’t a pipe dream, it became a realistic goal.

“We didn’t really expect to win (many) games this year. When one of our coaches, Coach Ponik, came up to us and said it was his expectation for us to go to the playoffs, we all kind of looked at him like he was a crazy man,” senior Austin Cook said. “When we actually started to win games, we started to gain confidence and we started to come together more as a unit.”

The Hurons made good on their goal and will take on a West Iron County program with no shortage of playoff experience. The Wykons are a year removed from a run to the Division 8 semifinals and have made the playoffs seven times since 2011.

The Wykons have won a mixture of close games and blowouts behind a power running game with their only losses coming against Calumet, a Division 6 school and Ishpeming, a Division 7 school.

Rogers City has made good use of film study this season and in preparing for the Wykons this week, one player jumps off the screen immediately: Bryant Schram.

The 6-foot-2, 285-pound senior is a force for West Iron County on both sides of the ball and was recently named the West PAC Conference-Iron Division’s Lineman of the Year and earned first team honors at defensive lineman and fullback.

“They like to run the football. They have a pretty good-sized fullback (and) we’re going to have to slow him down to compete,” Fenstermaker said of Schram. “I like the passing game (too, but) I have a lot of faith in our defensive backfield.”

Rogers City will also need to keep an eye on Nathan Thomson and Trey Bociek. Thomson rushed for 73 yards and two scores in a win over Norway last week while Bociek threw for 107 yards and a touchdown and also ran for a score.

Despite winning last week, West Iron County fumbled three times and lost two of them. Should the Wykons have a repeat performance tonight that could spell trouble against an opportunistic Rogers City defense. The Hurons forced three turnovers last week in a win over Manton and have allowed just 7.5 points per game in the last four weeks.

“We have a solid defense right now. We need to keep the passing limited and I believe we need to limit No. 20 (Schram) out of the backfield,” Cook said.

Forcing turnovers could give Rogers City’s offense plenty of time on the field and the Hurons have shown their offensive success isn’t dependent on one player. Quarterback Caleb Bade leads an efficient passing game with Ethan Hincka and Jalen Fleming among his main targets. In the backfield, Michael Karsten, Kaleb Budnick, Lewis Fleming and Jeff Ellenberger have all proven capable of running the ball and each has stepped up in big moments during the year.

Getting an opportunity to play a playoff game at home in front of a supportive home crowd is one that isn’t lost on the Hurons and they’re hopeful this game and this season signal the start of a program turnaround.

‘It’s very exciting. Being the first team in a long time (is exciting),” Karsten said. “We wanna start up something where we go the playoffs every year and not just every 10 years.”