ISHPEMING - The two coaches involved in Saturday morning's MHSAA Division 7 state championship football game have plenty of respect for each other's team.
Jeff Olson of 12-1 Ishpeming agrees that 13-0 Detroit Loyola will be the greatest challenge the Hematites have faced all season.
"They're big, fast and quick," he said about the Bulldogs of the Catholic High School League's Intersectional Division.
Ishpeming senior running back Eric Kostreva makes his way into the end zone for the Hematites only touchdown in the MHSAA Division 7 state semifinal game at the Superior Dome on Saturday. Ishpeming will leave Marquette County for the first time this postseason to play Detroit Loyola in the state championship on Saturday at Ford Field in?Detroit. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Ishpeming junior quarterback Alex Briones (17) celebrates a successful scamper into the end zone for the Hematites’ game-winning two-point conversion against Pewamo-Westphalia in a MHSAA Division 7 state semifinal at the Superior Dome on Saturday with senior offensive lineman Cody Kugler (73) running to join him. (Journal photo by Matt Wellens)
Loyola features a 218-pound running back who averages more than 10 yards a carry and has amassed more than 2,000 yards, along with a pair of defensive tackles who have been recruited by major NCAA Division I programs and weigh close to 300 pounds.
But Bulldogs fourth-year head coach John Callahan has the utmost respect for what Olson has done, guiding Ishpeming to the playoffs for the 11th straight year and reaching the state title game for the second time in three years.
"We come out and we're very physical, but we aren't there yet like Ishpeming is," Callahan said. "We're still trying to get to that level."
Ishpeming Hematites (12-1) vs. Detroit Loyola Bulldogs (13-0)
Saturday, 10 a.m. at Ford Field in Detroit on FS Detroit
Tickets: On sale today from 8 a.m.-noon at the Ishpeming School District superintendent's office inside the high school for $10.
Parking: Public parking in lots controlled by Ford Field and Olympia in the vicinity of the stadium is $6. Some individual vendors may charge more. Tailgating is prohibited in public parking lots
Fan buses: Two buses will depart Ishpeming on Friday. The first bus leaves at noon and will spend Friday night at the Crowne Plaza in Auburn Hills. The cost is $70 for the ride and includes the game ticket, but not lodging. A second bus will leave at 11 p.m. on Friday. Cost is $83 and includes a game ticket. Both buses will return to Ishpeming immediately following the game. To make a reservation and get hotel information, call the IHS office at 485-1066. The deadline to secure a seat is noon today.
He noted while this is Loyola's sixth straight appearance in the playoffs, it's the first time the school has gotten beyond the regional round.
In fact, the Bulldogs' four playoff wins this season equals the total entering this season in the history of a program that dates back to 1995, according to the michigan-football.com website.
But its stars may signal Loyola is here to stay as a small-school football powerhouse in Michigan, led by the Associated Press Division 7-8 Player of the Year, Malik McDowell.
The 6-foot-8, 290-pound defensive tackle is only a junior, but is already entertaining a number of scholarship offers that include the University of Michigan and Notre Dame.
If the Hematites stay away from him, they'll still have to contend with another huge junior, 6-5, 275-pound Kajohn Armstrong, who has been carefully looked at by Michigan State, among others.
Callahan said his team plays a "basic 4-4 or 5-3 front" depending on what the opposition is showing.
Offensively, the Bulldogs feature a stable of productive backs, but their star is senior Keymonne Gabriel, who rolled up more than 2,400 yards in just 210 carries while scoring 35 touchdowns.
"We also have a halfback who's gained 630 yards, a fullback with 500 and our quarterback with 300 yards," Callahan said.
Though Loyola is primarily a running team, the coach said he was willing to spread out the offense, depending on what he sees defensively.
"We've been able to create some seams that way," Callahan said.
However, in a 54-6 semifinal win over Flint Beecher on Saturday, Callahan said his team "ran right at them," not a surprise to Olson.
"Their big thing is that they have such a huge line to run behind," Ishpeming's coach said. "I understand they average 270 pounds.
"We have to have good technique, obviously, if we want to have a chance to control their offense. They've been knocking people back, and we don't want to look like we're on roller skates.
"They pound people and use some misdirection, similar to what (second-round playoff opponent) Mancelona tried to do. But they use their personnel well," he added.
And Ishpeming didn't get this far in the playoffs just by accident.
"We have a great group of kids this season," Olson said. "The key point is that they play like a team. We're not loaded with a bunch of phenomenal athletes, but they all function together.
"It's 11 kids all working together."
And those 11 on each side of the ball should be intact, unlike the finals game two years ago when top running back and linebacker Wyatt Jurasin had to sit out with a knee injury.
This year, junior quarterback Alex Briones dealt with a bone fracture in his foot for the latter part of the regular season. It apparently still affects him, but not enough to keep him out of the game or diminish his effectiveness, considering the rushing numbers he has put up recently, not to mention the three interceptions he has made as a defender over the past two games.
Senior running back Eric Kostreva has nagging leg and ankle injuries, but again he's only sat after Ishpeming has built big leads.
"We should be ready to go," Olson said. "Everyone played last week, and we didn't have anything big (injury-wise) come out of that game."
He also said that the travel itinerary from two years ago worked so well they'll duplicate it this year, with a departure from Ishpeming scheduled for 7 a.m. Friday and a practice in Gaylord on the way downstate.
Game time is 10 a.m. on Saturday at Ford Field in downtown Detroit. Television coverage will be provided by Fox Sports Detroit.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.