IRON RIVER - Neither snow, slush, mud nor the West Iron County Wykons could slow down Ishpeming's Alex Briones Friday night at Nelson Field.
The U.P. Large School's Offensive Player of the Year slithered through the flakes and the Wykons' defense for 129 yards and four touchdowns, as defending MHSAA Division 7 champion Ishpeming captured another district title with a 34-0 win over the Wykons.
"He's a heck of a football player," said Wykons head coach Mike Berutti, his team suffering its only loss of what was one of the best seasons in school history. "There's a reason why he is the U.P. player of the year. He's big. He's strong."
Ishpeming quarterback Alex Briones, right, looks for daylight against the West Iron County defense as he gets a block from Hematites’ teammate Bobby Zhulkie during the MHSAA?Division 7 regional championship playoff game played in Iron River on Friday night. (Iron Mountain Daily News photo by Teresa Proudfit)
Briones totaled 114 yards and scored three touchdowns by halftime, as Ishpeming (11-0) built an 18-0 lead.
"I thought at times we had our chances to contain him, and he wiggled through," Berutti said. "It looked like we had him stopped for nothing, and he'd pick up three (yards). We'd stop him for three and he'd get six. That's what good backs do."
The bigger problem for West Iron was cracking the Hematite defense.
"Their defense is tough," Berutti said. "We had our chances to move it and did move a little early on, but we couldn't capitalize."
Ishpeming scored on its first possession as the Wykons deferred and kicked to open the game. A poor kick gave the Hematites the ball near midfield.
Briones quickly went to work, gaining three first downs before running wide around the left side, just getting a foot inside the pylon after the 13-yard scamper.
WIC threatened to even the score, producing its best drive of the game. The Wykons started at their own 27, crossed midfield and were on the verge of entering the red zone before Ishpeming's defense stiffened.
A third-and-4 was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, and then Dominic Suardini and Mitch Laurin brought down Wykons quarterback Andrew Peterson for a sack on fourth down.
West Iron kept the Hematites off the board on the next series, but then went three-and-out themselves.
Briones then worked a 10-play, 74-yard drive, going in from three yards out to make it 12-0. Another Wykons three-and-out led to Ishpeming's third score of the half.
Starting at their own 38 with 2:10 to play before the break, Briones escaped disaster when a sure interception was dropped on a third-and-7 from the Wykons' 35.
But on the very next play, he connected with his intended target, Tyrus Millimaki, for a 29-yard pickup down to the 6. Two plays later, Briones jumped over the line and extended the ball across the plane for a score.
Missed two-point tries on all three touchdowns kept it an 18-0 margin at the half.
"Controlling the football right off the bat was key," Ishpeming head coach Jeff Olson said. "And again, we played a great defensive football game.
"You have to really recognize those kids in the line because in conditions likes this with snow and mud on the field, you've got to get those pushes off the line. They all blocked great and that's where it starts."
Ishpeming added two more scores in the third quarter. Bobby Zhulkie capped a 42-yard drive with a two-yard plunge for six. A high snap by the Wykons on a punt attempt gave the ball to Ishpeming on the Wykons' 2-yard-line late in the quarter. Briones took two tries to push it in from there.
Another bad snap on a punt resulted in a fourth-quarter safety.
"They're a good football team," Berutti said. "The better team won. We had a few things that didn't go our way that made it look a little bit lopsided."
Ishpeming, after giving up three first downs on the Wykons' first drive of the game, allowed just two the rest of the way. West Iron County finished with 81 total yards - that after gaining 55 on its first drive.
"These kids are focused," Olson said. "There's no letdown in them. Every snap all week in practice, they're going full speed. That's called senior leadership.
"And we played against a great football team tonight. They can't be ashamed of anything. They had a great season. We played well. We blocked well."
Alec Schmelebeck ran 18 times for 50 yards to lead West Iron County, which finished the season 10-1 and was the first Wykons team to go undefeated in the regular season.
Ishpeming next plays the winner of today's district final between Lincoln Alcona and Lake City.