Alec Schmelebeck’s running play is over almost before it starts, as an Ishpeming defender grabs his ankle behind the line of scrimmage.
IRON RIVER—“There’s a reason why they’ve won 18, 19 games in a row and a state championship.”
West Iron Coach Mike Berutti’s was talking about Ishpeming’s football team the morning after the Hematites blanked the Wykons 34-0 in their Division 7 district title game Nov. 8 at muddy Nelson Field.
With the win, the Hematites move on to the regional title game this weekend, while West Iron closes the books on its finest season ever: 10-1.
It’s a year for the record books, but it ended with a night of frustration: Ishpeming took momentum from the start and never let up. Plagued by pitiful field position, West Iron’s offense never got going. The Hematites’ linebackers and defensive backs never let them.
At the center of it all was Ishpeming QB Alex Briones, the focus of their offense. In their pre-game huddle, Coach Berutti emphasized one final time: “Stop No. 17.”
That’s a lot easier said than done. Ishpeming got the opening kick and drove 57 yards to score on eight plays, all on the ground and six of them by Briones. He scored from 13 yards out on a sweep around the left. WIC stopped the conversion run: Ishpeming, 6-0.
West Iron’s offense fought back. A pass interference penalty helped, and so did runs by Alec Schmelebeck and Chasz Jonet that earned first downs. But from the Ishpeming 32, the Hematites stopped Schmelebeck three straight times, forcing 4th and 6 at the 28. The drive ended when QB Andrew Peterson rolled out and was sacked.
Early in the second quarter Ishpeming got going again. Briones runs of 12, 15 and 13 yards all earned first downs and got the ball to the Wykon 7, and he later scored from the 3. The two-pointer was stopped, but Ishpeming led 12-0.
Nelson Field was wet and greasy in some areas, muddy and treacherous in others. As the game went on, it added to West Iron’s problems.
Ishpeming’s kickoff deflected off a Wykon returner’s hand and rolled all the way to the 4, where WIC covered. The Wykons had to start three drives inside their own 10 yard line, and that was the first.
What could West Iron do? Not much. A 1-yard run. A delay penalty. A fumbled snap. An incomplete pass. Now it’s 4th and 13 at the Wykon 1. Punter Ryan Rogers did well to get a kick away, but Ishpeming took the ball at the WIC 38.
The Wykon defense tried to hold the line and nearly got a badly needed interception. But on 4th and 7 at the 35, Briones’ pass to Tyrus Millimaki plus a facemask penalty put the ball at the 3. Two plays later, Briones scored from the 1. Ishpeming led 18-0 at the half.
Berutti said his team was pressing, trying to get one big play to get back into the game. “It gets you out of what you normally do, and things snowball. But you’ve got to take your shots.”
Things went from bad to worse in the third quarter. The Wykon defense forced an Ishpeming punt from midfield—but Briones’ quick kick rolled out of bounds at the Wykon 3. Ishpeming got the ball back at the WIC 42. Adam Prisk’s run plus a late hit penalty got the ball to the 7, and Bobbie Zhulkie scored from the 2 on second down. The two-point try failed—24-0.
The visitors then forced a Wykon punt from their 30—but the ball was snapped over Rogers’ head. After racing back to retrieve it, Rogers’ foot slipped in the mud, and his knee touched at the Wykon 2, ending the play. Briones scored from the 1 and then passed to Marcus Antilla for Ishpeming’s first two-pointer of the night. Now it’s 32-0.
The Hematites’ final two points came early in the fourth quarter. Another punt had been downed at the Wykon 7, and West Iron had to punt from its 15. Once again, the ball was snapped over Rogers’ head into the end zone. This time, he simply nudged the ball over the end line for a safety.
Briones had exited the game by then, and both teams’ reserves finished out the game.
“That Briones kid is the real deal,” Berutti said. There’s a reason why he’s the best football player in the U.P. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast, and he cuts better than most people would think a kid his size would be able to do.”
Briones and Mitch Laurin also tormented West Iron on defense. “They are the best linebackers in the U.P. We knew offensively we had to get up on those backers, and it seemed like we would get one every time. We just couldn’t get enough of the second guy.”
Despite Briones’ 124 rushing yards, Ishpeming only had 251 total yards for the night, just 74 after halftime. “If you would have asked me before the game if we held Briones to 124 yards, I’d say we had a real good shot.
“But field position played a factor. Defensively, after that first series, I thought we didn’t play that bad, but we were playing on a short field the whole time.”
Ishpeming? “As long as they can stay healthy, they’re a team that can be back at Ford Field again.”
His team? “We had a good year. The kids played hard. I think they grew up a lot over the year, became confident in themselves. And they had a lot of fun doing it. They’re good kids.”
It was the final game for a fine corps of seniors, including Peterson, Rogers, Jonet, Colton Pangrazzi, Andy Ridolphi, Byrson Heimerl, Tylor Capadagli, Joe Pisoni and Ron Varney. They all played a big role in West Iron’s first-ever unbeaten regular season.
Team stats: WIC total yards, 103 (3-9-8 passing, 31-95 rushing); Ishpeming, 251 total yards (2-6-42 passing, 46-209 rushing). First downs: WIC 7, Ishpeming 14.
Individual rushing: Alec Schmelebeck, 16-64; Chasz Jonet, 7-30. Passing: Andrew Peterson, 3-9-8. Receiving: Ryan Rogers, 1-6; Schmelebeck, 1-2. Ishpeming rushing: Alex Briones, 26-124.
Defense (tackles-assists): Jake Polich, 10-2; Schmelebeck, 7-2; Jonet, 6-1.
Hematites 6 12 14 2 -- 34
Wykons 0 0 0 0 -- 0