ISHPEMING - The Ishpeming High School football team looked like defending state champions Saturday at the playgrounds, defeating Mancelona 50-0 with a running clock the entire second half.
And it wasn't simply due to the passing of quarterback Alex Briones, who finished 7-for-10 with 246 yards and five touchdowns.
Nor was it the Hematites dominant defense, which kept the visiting Ironmen without a first down until late in the third quarter, and featured All-U.P. Large School Defensive Team linebacker Bobby Zhulkie and All-U.P. Defensive Dream Team members Tyrus Millimaki (defensive back) and Adam Prisk (defensive line).
Ishpeming quarterback Alex Briones leaps over Mancelona defender Cole VanWagoner (23) during an MHSAA Division 7 pre-district playoff game on Saturday in Ishpeming. (Journal photo by Justin Marietti)
It was more that, in the first game of the MHSAA Division 7 playoffs, the Hematites (10-0) were prepared and disciplined.
Prisk, who blasted past the Mancelona offensive line time and time again on Saturday, described the attitude of the Ishpeming team as such: "Our mentality was calm I would say. It was pretty calm, and we just wanted to stay focused."
The Hematite defense allowed only 20 yards on 20 Mancelona carries in the first half. The Ironmen (7-3) finished with 34 carries for 56 yards, the bulk of their yards coming while the Ishpeming starters watched from the sidelines.
Ishpeming 50, Mancelona 0
Score by quarters:
Mancelona 0 000 - 0
Ishpeming162680 - 50
Ishpeming - Alex Briones 46-yd pass to Marcus Antilla (Bobby Zhulkie run good), 6:56
Ishpeming - Briones 60-yd pass to Mitch Laurin (Zhulkie run good), 3:43
Ishpeming - Zhulkie, 11-yd run (Briones pass to Millimaki no good), 10:57
Ishpeming - Briones 13-yd pass to Ozzy Corp (Zhulkie run no good), 7:29
Ishpeming - Briones 50-yd pass to Corp (Zhulkie run no good), 5:21
Ishpeming - Briones 53-yd pass to Noah Olgren (Zhulkie run good), 0:12
Ishpeming - Olgren 50-yd run (Olgren run good), 4:36
First downs - Mancelona, 3; Ishpeming, 7
Rushes-yards - Mancelona, 34-56 (Justin Spires, 8-23); Ishpeming, 36-190 (Olgren, 8-70; Zhulkie, 13-61; Briones, 6-32; Nate Meyer, 2-10, Adam Prisk, 3-9, Dylan Sundberg, 3-5, Ozzie Hakkarinen, 1-3)
Comp-Att-Int-Yards - Mancelona, 0-2-1-0 (Jake Winstead); Ishpeming, 7-10-0-246 (Briones)
"We got beat up front," Mancelona head coach Dan Derrer said. "And the biggest thing is they play at pad level. We can tell our kids and tell our kids, but if you don't play low against them, you don't have a shot.
"They've got a system," Derrer added of the Hematites, "and their kids-you watch film on them, and they're just very disciplined defensively. They all do their jobs."
Briones, the Ishpeming anchor on defense at linebacker, echoed the statements of Derrer.
"We definitely motivate each other on defense," Briones said. "I tell the defensive line, 'Let's go. It's time for you guys to make a play. This game is on you guys, on how you perform.' I stress to our D-Line that they need to do their jobs. And me and (linebacker) Mitch (Laurin) do our jobs, and everybody does their job."
As has been the case all season, the Ishpeming defense was the key to victory, and head coach Jeff Olson said that was the intention as the Hematites began their title defense.
"That's the key to any game, and you've got to do that in the playoffs," he said. "Big plays can hurt you, big events can hurt you, they can turn the tide, turn the momentum, and for us to play solid defense like that all game, that's something we were working on and hoping for."
And on the other side of the ball, it doesn't hurt to have the U.P. Offensive Player of the Year, in Briones.
Ishpeming's senior quarterback added six runs for 32 yards to his 246 yards passing, and managed to elude the Mancelona defense all day, breaking tackles with stiff arms and sheer strength, even going so far as to leap over a standing Ironmen defender.
On one play in the second quarter, with Ishpeming leading 28-0, Briones scrambled back 15 yards from the line of scrimmage, broke four tackles, three via stiff-arm, and finished with a 14-yard gain.
"We weren't able to get pressure on the quarterback all day," Derrer said. "And the quarterback is the U.P. Player of the Year for a reason. He made plays."
As for what Ishpeming's head coach thinks when his quarterback scrambles 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage and finishes with positive yards?
"That's just athletes making plays," Olson said. "I'd like to take credit for that, but that's athletes making plays. He gets some free ones by our line opening up some big holes for him, but then when he can do it on his own like that, it just puts that much more pressure on opposing teams."
Next up for the Hematites is at 7 p.m. game on Friday at West Iron County (11-0), which defeated Traverse City St. Francis 21-7 on Friday.
"Today's win is just one step on the ladder," Olson said. "Next week it's going to be all West Iron County, and they're a good team. We watched them last night and it's going to be a heck of a ball game."
Mancelona's head coach said he thinks the Hematites have the pieces to make another run at the title.
"They've always got a shot because they've got such a great defense," Derrer said. "They're one of the favorites to win it for sure. It's not going to be easy for them, though. There's some really good teams in Division 7."
But it might be Briones, the team leader, who best summed up the team's mentality on the road to back-to-back titles.
"It's the first playoff game, we're easing into it," he said. "There were some butterflies before the game, but we came in and we performed, and we worked hard all game, just like we do all the time.
"We were motivating each other all week," he added, "and telling each other that the journey begins here."