ESCANABA - Two teams who have started the high school football season in opposite directions will have a couple of things in common when they begin the Great Northern Conference season here Friday.
Marquette (3-0) visits Escanaba (0-3) as the Eskymos celebrate their homecoming. Both teams have relied heavily on the forward pass, much different than many previous meetings when the running game usually dictated the outcome.
It will also be sort of a homecoming for Dan Flynn, the former Escanaba head coach who is in his first season as an assistant coach at Marquette. However, Flynn and head coaches Dave L'Huillier of Marquette and Jim Hansen of Escanaba are adamant the story line to this game is about the players.
That is definitely the case, but Flynn's appearance is a big sub-plot to this long-time rivalry. Escanaba, which upset the Redmen 31-22 last year in Hansen's first year at the helm, owns a decisive 55-14-1 advantage in the series.
The teams have faced two common opponents this season. Marquette beat Traverse City Central 31-23 in the season opener, then drubbed Cheboygan 35-3. Esky fell to TCC 28-7 in week two and last week dropped a 33-21 decision to Cheboygan.
"Our schedule is just unforgiving," said Hansen, noting his club has been in the game each week but can't get over the hump. "We are eliminating mistakes each week. Against Alpena (a 15-6 loss) we did not block one play correctly. Against Traverse City we eliminated a lot of those mistakes and we cut those mistakes in half again last week."
The Esky defense has picked up from a year ago, when it had yielded 100 points after three games. "This year every game has been a one-touchdown affair deep into the fourth quarter," said Hansen. "Our defense has been playing pretty well."
The Eskymos have relied heavily on the spread offense passing of Travis Heller, who has hit 33-of-58 passes for 505 yards and three touchdowns. Cameron Beversluis is the primary target, catching 18 balls for 385 yards and three TDs. Esky has passed for 505 yards and run for 400 yards.
"We've been progressing well, we're improving each week," said Hansen.
L'Huillier has also noticed Escanaba's improvement and is wary of the Eskymos.
"They always have fantastic athletes, and their quarterback throws the ball very well," he said. "They have been very close in every game."
The Redmen still operate out of the wing-T offense, but junior Brett Place has been displaying the aerial ingenuity of that attack since settling into the quarterback role early last season. He has hit 35-of-62 passes for 531 yards and 10 touchdowns, with just one interception. Wide receiver Kurt Burmeister has caught 16 balls for 273 yards and six scores.
"We have been a run-dominated team, but with our personnel this year, we are getting more athletic kids out in space," said L'Huillier. "We're spreading the field a little more and getting more one-on-one matchups."
Brett Beauchamp is the prime rushing threat, with 151 yards on 31 carries, and Paul Smith ran for 74 yards in 12 carries to help slip past Sault Ste. Marie 17-14 last week on Jared Burby's 24-yard field goal with 1:24 to play. L'Huillier said the Redmen are running the ball 65 percent of the time.
That offense is working behind a line directed by Flynn, one of several veteran assistants on L'Huillier's staff. Flynn, a former Northern Michigan University lineman and 2009 U.P. Sports Hall of Fame inductee, also ran the line while compiling a 142-113 record as the EHS head coach from 1985-2011.
"We are very fortunate we have put together a great staff of assistants," said L'Huillier, noting Flynn joined former Westwood High School head coach Jim Marana and veteran assistants Todd Koski and Jim Iwanicki. Another veteran, John Tiziani, runs the jayvees. "All of the coaches come from different backgrounds and they do what is best for the kids."
Flynn came to Marquette in spring at the request of two former Eskymos now coaching the Redmen frosh, Eric Mason and Spike Houle. He was quickly elevated to the varsity staff.
"It has been a seamless transition," said L'Huillier. "It is like he has been here for the last 15 years."
Flynn reluctantly talked about his move to Marquette, stressing this game is about the players and not about him or any other coach.
"It will be weird and strange being at a place I called home for a long time," he said of Friday's trip to Esky, where he has maintained his home and his wife Karin remains on the EHS gymnastic coaching staff.
Admitting he hasn't thought about coaching against the Eskymos, Flynn missed being on the sidelines last year and is comfortable being an assistant.
"At this point I don't have to be a head coach. I just want to coach," he said. "I was a much more frustrated person a year ago than I am now. I am enjoying myself. We have a nice group of young men here and a real good group of coaches.
"I came to this job because I enjoyed the kids and coaches in Escanaba so much. I missed that."
After being in charge for so long, Flynn said reverting to his former assistant's role has been easy. "It is his (L'Huillier) call. I fully understand the role of head coach. Dave has his way of doing things and I appreciate what an assistant football coach does. I'm fine doing what I'm doing."
None of the current Eskymos played for Flynn, but Hansen and EHS assistants Jeff Hansen and Don Koish were players during Flynn's tenure as head coach.
"It will be different, interesting, whatever adjective you want to use," Jim Hansen said of having Flynn on the Marquette sideline. "This is about the kids and the game. Dan is doing what he wants to do. He wants to coach. We are focused on the game."