MARQUETTE - Diehard fans of the area's two best high school football teams won't have a hard decision to make Saturday afternoon.
But casual fans and those who just want to see some quality football will be left scratching their heads.
Do I go to Ishpeming High School and watch what could be the start of a second-straight march to the MHSAA Division 7 championship game?
Ishpeming quarterback Alex Briones dives through a pair of Mancelona defensive linemen during an MHSAA Division 7 district final on Nov. 3, 2012, at the Ishpeming Playgrounds in Ishpeming. The Hematites and Ironmen meet again at 1 p.m. Saturday in a Div. 7 pre-district game at the same Ishpeming Playgrounds. (Journal file photo by Zach Jay)
Negaunee junior quarterback Ryan Syrjala runs with the ball against Marquette on Oct. 18 in Negaunee. Syrjala, junior Zak Harsila, senior Austin Caya and junior Jesse Godfrey combined for 867 yards and 13 touchdowns heading into Saturday’s 1 p.m. game against Indian River Inland Lakes. (Journal file photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Or do I remain a few miles east and visit Negaunee High School to see a powerful Miners team begin what might be another deep run into the Division 6 playoffs?
The good news is that there really shouldn't be a bad choice to be made between a pair of games that are scheduled to start at 1 p.m.
Ishpeming completed a 9-0 regular season a week ago, something the Hematites couldn't even say last year when they lost to Negaunee in the game that has come to decide the balance of power in western Marquette County and the whole Mid-Peninsula Conference.
This year, IHS got revenge with a 28-24 victory three weeks ago in a game decided by two-point conversions - the Hematites made two but Negaunee none as each scored four touchdowns.
Ishpeming has had fewer interesting games - every game but the Negaunee contest had a running clock used for most or all of the second half. But Saturday should still draw the curious even if Ishpeming punishes its first-round opponent, Mancelona, like it did last season.
Hematites coach Jeff Olson was livid in the aftermath of a melee that erupted in the third quarter last season, then concerned in the game's aftermath.
Despite his - and many others - contention that the Ironmen initiated all the aggression including several punches to helmetless players, top IHS lineman Brad Wootke was the only player ejected and therefore had to sit out the following game, too.
Olson wants to make sure a repeat of that doesn't happen Saturday.
"I've told our guys they have to be aware of their surroundings," the 22nd-year head coach said. "We might have thought what transpired was unfair, but we did learn a life lesson from it. We had a good group of kids then, and this is also a good group now."
The Ironmen are located between Gaylord and Traverse City and are members of the Ski Valley Conference's South Division. Their 7-2 record includes a 26-20 loss to St. Ignace and wins of 42-6 over Pickford and 28-26 over Negaunee's first-round opponent, Indian River Inland Lakes, just a week ago.
This will be Mancelona's third trip in four years to Ishpeming for a playoff game.
"Mancelona hasn't changed much from what I've seen over these games," Olson said. "Maybe they'll add a little shotgun to their offense, but mainly, they like to play power football."
An extra wrinkle the Hematites have added is more passing. Quarterback Alex Briones is at his pinnacle as a third-year starter, injury-free unlike last season when he had to deal with a broken foot for most of the campaign.
Receivers like seniors Mitch Laurin, Tyrus Millimaki and Derek DeCaire and junior Marcus Antilla not only catch the ball but add a lot of YAC - yards after catch - to pad the aerial numbers.
Briones doesn't get to put up huge passing numbers, partly since he hardly plays more than half a game, partly because the team doesn't rely on the pass, and partly because Briones is such a good running back, rushing for a team-high 814 yards.
But when he does air it out, Briones is deadly. One-fifth of his pass attempts turned into TDs, none were intercepted and the average completion went for 24.4 yards. Though he runs on his own nearly twice as often as he passes, the senior QB had 13 TDs each way.
Saturday's weather forecast could put a crimp in the passing attack, with a snow-rain mix predicted all morning and afternoon.
"Technique and playing with consistency are two of the things we're looking for (Saturday)," Olson said.
"We have a good defense. Maybe the biggest difference from last year is that we might be a little bit quicker."
Senior Bobby Zhulkie was among M-PC leaders with three interceptions while Briones had two.
Negaunee 14th-year coach Paul Jacobson should be comfortable grounding all flights of the ball when the Miners are in possession if the weather dictates it Saturday.
Punishing senior running back Tyler LaJoie, a collegiate-like 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, led all M-PC rushers by nearly 500 yards, totaling 1,312 yards in 103 carries, a 12.7-yard average. Not to mention 21 TDs, far and away the best in the M-PC.
Senior Tyler Windahl ran for 528 yards and six TDs, while junior QB Ryan Syrjala, junior Zak Harsila, senior Austin Caya and junior Jesse Godfrey combined for 867 more yards and 13 TDs.
"I think it was obvious that the loss to Ishpeming was a letdown," Jacobson said. "But the last couple of weeks, the team has rebounded well from it. We're playing real good football at this point."
That also shows defensively, as two top interceptors in the M-PC are on the roster - Zane Radloff has four and fellow senior Tyler Jandron three.
Last season, the Miners reached the playoffs' third round following wins against Iron Mountain and Calumet before bowing out against Shelby, 26-22, at home.
Saturday's opponent comes from just 25 miles south of the Mackinac Bridge. Inland Lakes (6-3) plays in the Ski Valley Conference's North Division along with several Upper Peninsula teams. The Bulldogs defeated Pickford 36-34 and Rudyard 28-24 while losing to St. Ignace 39-28, along with last week's two-point loss to Mancelona.
"Our kids understand what it means, the privilege it is to be in the playoffs, but also how quickly it can end," Jacobson said. "I think we have a good mentality entering this part of our season."