DETROIT - In a game where an extra yard or two could've made all the difference, it was just inches that separated Ishpeming and Detroit Loyola.
And the Upper Peninsula's lone representative in the MHSAA state football finals round made sure those miniscule measurements fell in its favor to win its first championship since 1979.
The Hematites completed a rollercoaster season at the top of the mountain with a 20-14 victory that gave them the Division 7 state title at Ford Field in Detroit on Saturday.
Ishpeming senior running back Eric Kostreva outruns Detroit Loyola defensive back Anthony Fierson for a 55-yard touchdown during the first quarter of the MHSAA Division 7 state football championship on Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit. Kostreva gained 182 yards on 20 carries with three touchdown runs to lead the Hematites to their third state football championship in school history. (MHSAA photo by Terry McNamara)
Ishpeming faced the recent deaths of several teenagers close to the program - including head coach Jeff Olson's son Daniel in July - the saga of getting 19-year-old Eric Dompierre eligible to play his senior season, and the one-game suspension of their best and biggest lineman in the middle of the playoffs.
During that time, though, the Hematites won 12 of their 13 games heading into Saturday's season finale.
Though every touchdown in the game changed the lead, it was a pair of non-scoring plays in the game's final six minutes that proved most decisive.
IHS State Champions
1975, Class C:
Ishpeming 38, Hudson 22
1979, Class C:
Ishpeming 13, Watervliet 0
2012, Div. 7:
Ishpeming 20, Detroit Loyola 14
First it was the bedrock Ishpeming defense that came through with 5:36 to go, stopping Loyola on fourth down when the Bulldogs only needed about 18 inches to make it first-and-goal from inside the 8-yard-line.
Ishpeming junior Alex Briones, who as quarterback was called on to try just four passes on the indoor turf, was the first man in the hole that Loyola star running back Keymonn'e Gabriel tried to run through.
Gabriel, a sleek 218-pound athlete who gained more than 2,400 yards on the ground entering this game, was stuffed for a 1-yard loss.
That turned the ball over on downs at the Ishpeming 9.
The Hematites smartly ran the ball three straight times, winding nearly two minutes off the clock, and it left them with a tantalizing fourth down, less than a foot from a first down that would all but certainly end the game.
But coach Olson had to balance that with the Hematites' spot on the field - deep in their own end on their 18.
Twice calling timeout in an effort to induce Loyola to jump offside, he gave Briones the go-ahead to run the play the third time, and with a good surge, the QB kept the ball for a 2-yard gain.
While Ishpeming had to give up the ball with a punt four plays later, it had burned another 2 minutes off the clock and forced Loyola to use up its final timeout.
It left 1:14 for the Bulldogs to move the ball 72 yards, a tall task for a 13-0 team that reportedly only averaged about 50 yards a game through the air.
And Loyola only got 13 of those yards when senior QB Toby Sharpe flung a wounded duck up for grabs that landed splat on the field as time expired.
"We knew they had the size and strength to make it difficult for us," Olson said about Loyola, whose players included 290-pound Malik McDowell and 275-pound Kajohn Armstrong, both junior defensive tackles being wooed by Big Ten universities and other college football powers.
"It was just a war out there," said Ishpeming's biggest player, senior All-Upper Peninsula lineman Brad Wootke, who weighed in at a relatively svelte 255 pounds.
"We had to stay low, use a lot of angles and good technique, and some double- and triple-teams."
Appreciating the effort was Hematites running back Eric Kostreva, who scored each of Ishpeming's TDs on runs of 55 yards in the first quarter, 2 yards in the third quarter and 3 yards in the fourth.
"They gave us some great bubbles (holes) to run into," said the senior, who finished with 182 yards rushing on 20 carries.
Despite the size advantage the Bulldogs had on both lines - Loyola had seven players who weighed at least as much as Wootke - the Hematites managed a 236-195 advantage on the ground, with Briones contributing Ishpeming's balance of 54 yards on 20 rushes.
Gabriel was kept bottled up through much of the first half, but broke free several times after to finish with 129 yards on 21 runs while also catching four passes for 52 yards.
"That was a group of phenomenal athletes," Olson said about Loyola.
Gabriel caught a 28-yard TD pass from Loyola QB Toby Sharpe to tie the game 6-6 with 3:14 left in the first half, while sophomore teammate Marvin Campbell gave the Detroit team the halftime lead with a successful two-point conversion run.
Kostreva scored on a short run in the third quarter to cap a 12-play Ishpeming drive that took the first seven minutes off the second-half clock.
But a Briones two-point conversion pass fell incomplete to make it 12-8 Hematites.
Gabriel answered on the final play of the third quarter with a 20-yard scoring run to give his team a 14-12 lead.
But just as significantly, the Bulldogs used two timeouts during the drive - including one on the failed two-point conversion try - to leave themselves fewer opportunities to stop the clock in the game's critical final minutes.
Ishpeming made sure those minutes became critical when Kostreva, on the second play after the ensuing kickoff, ran 60 yards by cutting toward the left sideline and then changing direction and sprinting for the right corner of the end zone.
He was brought down by Loyola sophomore Anthony Frierson at the Bulldogs 3, and scored on 2nd-and-goal from the 2.
Briones scored Ishpeming's only two-point conversion of the day to give the Hematites a six-point lead they jealously protected the rest of the way.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.