ISHPEMING - There was some revenge at play Friday night at the Ishpeming Playgrounds, even if Ishpeming High School head football coach Jeff Olson wasn't saying so in the lead-up to the Hematite' matchup with the Negaunee Miners and head coach Paul Jacobson.
But after Olson's Hematites earned a 28-24 victory, behind 177 yards rushing from quarterback Alex Briones, Ishpeming's coach was a bit more candid.
"I just wanted to right the wrong from last year," Olson said.
Negaunee High School's Jason Bell hurdles an Ishpeming player during their pivotal Mid-Peninsula Conference game Friday night in Ishpeming. (Journal photo by Jenna Thompson)
The Hematites' lone loss en route to a state championship last season came at the hands of the Miners, and the team's leader this season echoed his head coach's sentiment after Friday night's victory.
"Revenge, it's a factor there," Briones said. "But it's also a big rivalry. We wanted to come into this game and we wanted to stick it to them.
"This game says a lot about our team and our character," he added. "We weren't getting respect all year. People were saying we were playing bad teams, but we came in here tonight and we proved that we're the real deal."
Briones led Ishpeming's (7-0, 5-0 Mid-Peninsula Conference) ground attack, averaging more than six yards a carry (28 attempts for his 177 yards). He scored three times, on runs of from 8-, 4- and 1-yard out.
The offensive numbers for Briones, as well as his backfield mates Adam Prisk and Bobby Zhulkie, led to Negaunee's (6-1, 4-1 M-PC) defense struggling to get stops-and to get off the field-for the majority of the game.
"Briones is a heck of an athlete," Negaunee's head coach said. "I'm glad he's gone this year.
"He's a great athlete and hurt us with his feet tonight," Jacobson added. "We couldn't get the ball back when we needed to."
The Miners tied the game once in the second quarter when running back Tyler Windahl leaped over the top for a 1-yard score, making it 6-6. But the Hematites never looked back from there, leading until the final horn.
Ishpeming's run game totaled 333 yards on 52 attempts.
That ball control was the game plan going in to Friday's matchup. according to Olson, who said it was important to keep the talented Miners' offense on the bench.
"Negaunee's got some great athletes. When you look at (running back Tyler) LaJoie - people were doubting whether we could stop him or not - and then you've got big 6-foot-5-inch (wide receiver Zane) Radloff, who can jump out of the gym against our small corner, then (wide receiver) Tyler Jandron's a great athlete.
"We had athletes we wanted to keep the ball away from," he added. "So the longer we could keep it (the ball) in our hands, the better, and our kids did that."
LaJoie, the team- and conference-leading rusher coming into the game, wasn't the leader on the ground against the Hematites. Instead, Jacobson and the Miners' coaching staff took a page from the Hematites' playbook and rushed their quarterback Ryan Syrjala. Syrjala went for 90 yards on 10 carries to lead the team.
"We always have some things on the back burner," Jacobson said of Syrjala. "We decided to go to that a little bit tonight, kind of anticipating how Ishpeming would try to defend it."
Both Radloff and Jandron did get their share of plays, helping Syrjala to 114 yards on 5-for-10 passing.
Jandron, who scored once on a 32-yard pass in the fourth quarter as time expired, also lateralled the ball to teammate Windahl in the third quarter on a play that resulted in a 37-yard touchdown.
As both coaches met in the press box after the game and wished each other a well-fought game, the first question they had for one another was whether they came out of the game healthy. They did.
The exchange showed just how long Olson and Jacobson had been competing in, what is at times, a bitter rivalry, and just how much respect they had for one another.
"That's the positive out of this. Both teams came out pretty healthy and I'd like to see both teams make a pretty good run into the playoffs," Jacobson said. "We've been doing this for a long time.
"You know what you're going to get in this game. Two well-coached teams, with a lot of respect for one another, and a little smash mouth (football) too."