Stakes rise as playoff push continues
ESCANABA — For area high school football teams, the time is now. This is the time of year you put all that summer work in for, with a chance to go to the playoffs and, perhaps, put yourself in position to host playoff games.
That’s what’s at stake for Escanaba and Gladstone as both teams get set to host their regular season home finales Friday night at 7 p.m.
The Eskymos (6-1) will play host to a very good Traverse City Central team (6-1) team that is currently ranked ninth in the state in Division 2. Esky is sixth in Division 4 and No. 1 in the U.P.
With a win, Esky almost assures itself one home playoff game and maybe more, depending on how it does at Swartz Creek in the season finale and how other teams fare. The Eskymos have already clinched a playoff spot after last week’s 35-0 win over Gladstone.
“It’s very exciting for our program and for our kids,” Esky coach Dave Howes said. “It’s the goal every year. Our philosophy is take it game-by-game, and if we do that, we’ll get there. It’s just an exciting time for our program and our kids.”
The Eskymos went on the road and stunned the Trojans 38-21 at this time last year, but Howes knows it’s going to be a challenge to duplicate that.
“They’re very well coached, they rarely make mistakes during the game, and they’ve got some athletes,” Howes said. “They have a lot of kids back from last year. They execute their game plan and they’re very fast and physical.”
One of those athletes is 6-foot-4 senior quarterback Peyton Smith, who transferred from Ithaca. Smith has thrown for over 600 yards this season and is yet to throw an interception. He also gets plenty of help on the outside from receivers Trey Searles and Josh Burnham.
Howes is excited for the challenge.
“It’s always good to play against good competition late in the year going into the playoffs,” he said. “(Traverse City) is highly respected in the state of Michigan. Our kids are going in confident. We know it’s going to be a battle for both teams trying to build resumes going into the playoffs. It’s going to be two good teams going at it.
“The kids and coaches know it’s very important for securing home-field in the next two-to-three weeks, depending how things fall. We’re obviously taking Traverse City very seriously and then moving on from there. There’s a lot at stake.”
Sixteen seniors will be playing their final regular season home game for the orange and black.
“They busted their butt for four years,” Howes said.
“It’s very emotional for the kids. The success they’ve had the last couple years has been awesome. We’ve just been very thankful to be in the playoffs five years in a row, and having those seniors be able to play home games in the playoffs is a testament to our players working hard and coaches working hard, too.”
Meanwhile, Gladstone (3-4) needs to win its last two games to have a shot at the postseason. After playing host to third-ranked Marquette (3-4) Friday, the Braves finish the season at Oscoda next week.
“The vibe’s good right now,” Braves’ coach Jeff Hansen said. “The team has a lot of spirit and a lot of fight to go win these next two games to create a pathway for us to get into the playoffs. We feel like we can win these two for sure if we play our best football. This week is an absolute must-win for us. I expect a really good football game.”
Winning won’t be easy against a Redmen team that is yet to lose a Great Northern Conference game. The Redmen have had their share of ups and downs, beginning the season with a pair of losses to Traverse City schools before bouncing back to hammer Sault Ste. Marie and then hand Escanaba its only loss. However, the Redmen couldn’t build on that momentum and dropped back-to-back games to Petoskey and Alpena before rallying from a 21-0 deficit to stun Menominee 28-21 last week.
“When they’ve won, they’ve won because they got big plays and big plays off of turnovers. They’ve had big plays on offense, defense and special teams in those games,” Hansen said. “So, we’re going to look to try and make them grind it out with us. I was at the Escanaba (vs. Marquette) game, and it was all about big plays and big plays involving turnovers.
“In losses to Petoskey and Alpena, they weren’t able to get those big chunk plays. That seems to be the common denominator to me.”
Braves’ senior quarterback Drake Forrest is expected to return after separating his shoulder on the first series against Escanaba last week. Hansen noted the injury is more of a pain management thing, but Forrest has been cleared and wants to play.
“He’s going be our first quarterback, but Cam Kelly is still going to come in and add that other dimension as more of a running threat,” Hansen said.
“Not only does Drake help you run the offense the way you want to, but he’s also a great leader. That’s good for our locker room and our morale.”
The Braves can actually do rival Escanaba a favor by beating the Redmen. The Redmen are currently 2-0 in the GNC and Escanaba is 3-1, but if the Redmen falter down the stretch, Esky could still wind up with a share of the conference title.
“Our focus is obviously on our goals, but I talked to some of the Escanaba coaches and they said we’re rooting for us in terms of how the conference plays out,” Hansen said. “We want to accomplish our goals and I think my buddies over on the Escanaba staff would appreciate that as well. We’re embracing the role of playing spoiler.”
Like the Eskymos, the Braves have a big group of 18 seniors playing their final home game.
“This senior group has been tremendous,” Hansen said. “They’ve been with us their entire football careers. I’ve really been driving home this is the last time you’ll get to play on your home field. As a player, I remember playing my last home game as a senior and how that felt, so I’ve been driving home how special it is to play at home in a must-win game to make the playoffs in your last home game.
“There’s a lot of grit with this senior group. They’ve really bought into what we’ve done and embody what we want to be as a program. In a conference this tough and the schedule that we play, we wouldn’t be where we are without them and the contributions they’ve made and the leadership they’ve shown.”
Elsewhere, Carney-Nadeau travels to face arch-rival and top-ranked North Central, Rapid River looks to keep its slim playoff hopes alive visiting second-ranked Pickford, Superior Central visits fifth-ranked Cedarville and Manistique hosts its home finale against Norway.
Action concludes Saturday when Bark River-Harris hosts fifth-ranked Lake Linden-Hubbell at 2 p.m. The Broncos (5-2) can punch their ticket to the playoffs with a win.