ITHACA - For awhile, Negaunee slugged it out, toe-to-toe, with one of the state's premier high school football programs.
Then it was over.
Ithaca scored 39 straight points to overcome a 28-20 second-quarter deficit Saturday in running away from the Miners, 62-34, in an MHSAA Division 6 regional championship game at Ithaca Community Stadium.
Negaunee running back Tyler LaJoie slips out of the grasp of an Ithaca defender Saturday at Ithaca Community Stadium in an MHSAA Division 6 regional championship game. (Andy Sneddon photo)
Negaunee finishes the season at 10-2, but it put up a valiant effort in battling the three-time defending state champions, who have now won 54 consecutive games.
It's the longest current winning streak in the nation and the second-longest in state history.
But as inspired as the Miners played, they simply were no match for a runaway train known as the Yellowjackets' no-huddle spread offense that rolled up nearly 700 yards.
High School Football
Menominee 49, Standish 27
Ithaca 62, Negaunee 34
Ishpeming 28, Lake City 13
Rapid River 40, N. Huron 8
"The kids, you can't fault the effort," said Negaunee coach Paul Jacobson, whose team bowed in the regional title game for the second straight year. "They did a tremendous job today.
"Ithaca's a great team. They're on a run right now."
Negaunee had the Yellowjackets on the ropes for a quarter and a half, seizing a 28-20 lead after Tyler Windahl's two-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter.
At that point, it was a track meet, and the Miners seemingly held an emotional edge on the No. 1-ranked team in Division 6.
"I told the players on the sideline, 'We've been here before; we've been in these shootouts before,'" Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said, "and you've just got to keep scoring because, hopefully, we can wear them out.'"
The tide turned less than six minutes later when Ithaca running back Brian Shaw bolted 85 yards for a TD and quarterback Travis Smith connected with Josh Hafner on the two-point conversion pass to tie the game at 28-28.
"I wasn't sure if that was the big shift ... because (Negaunee's) so talented, and my gosh, they really put us in a hole there early," Hessbrook said. "But we talk all the time ... you have to play four quarters of football. And I was just hoping we could make it to the fourth quarter and not get knocked out early. That's a heck of a football team we just played."
After Ithaca tied it, Negaunee failed to gain a first down on its next possession and punted. Ithaca took over and went 62 yards in eight plays, the final 44 coming on a Smith-to-Logan Hessbrook pass.
That gave the Yellowjackets the lead for good, but their fireworks were far from over.
Had the Miners been able to grind out a first down on its next possession, they would have kept the ball out of the oh-so-dangerous Smith's hands and perhaps gone into halftime trailing by just one score. Instead, the Miners punted and gave the Yellowjackets possession at their own 38.
Three plays later, Ithaca was in the end zone, this time courtesy of a 25-yard Smith-to-Hessbrook strike with less than 30 seconds left in the half. That made it 42-28, and the momentum had clearly shifted to Ithaca.
"I thought if we could just have held on there (before the half)," Jacobson said. "They made plays. Their quarterback made some great throws to Hessbrook. They've got some weapons and they played a tremendous game today."
Alex Vanderploeg booted a 41-yard field goal to open the second half, extending Ithaca's lead to 45-28. Then after a Negaunee turnover, Smith connected again with Logan Hessbrook on a TD pass, this one covering 48 yards to make it 52-28 with 6:11 to play in the third quarter.
Shaw tacked on a 7-yard TD run and Vanderploeg nailed a 20-yard field goal to complete the Ithaca scoring.
Smith, a senior headed for the University of Toledo, completed 24 of 40 passes for 413 yards and five touchdowns. He also rushed for 73 yards on 14 carries, scoring on a 43-yard run.
Hessbrook caught seven passes - four of them for TDs - and finished with 217 yards. Shaw rushed for 206 yards on 20 carries as Ithaca rolled up 694 yards in total offense.
The Yellowjacket offensive blizzard overshadowed an outstanding performance by Negaunee's Tyler LaJoie. LaJoie was a workhorse in the Miners' backfield, carrying 29 times for 110 yards. He scored four TDs, one on a 16-yard run, another on a 2-yard run, a third on a 75-yard kickoff return and his fourth came on a 45-yard interception return.
LaJoie's 16-yard TD run, kickoff return for a TD and interception return all came before the game was 10 minutes old.
"We gave them a pick-six, we gave them a kickoff return for a touchdown," Terry Hessbrook said. "Those are things that'll just kill you. I was glad to see that our offense was able to overcome that.
"The defense made the adjustments we had to make to slow No. 20 (LaJoie) down, because what a special running back that kid is. Wow."
Negaunee quarterback Ryan Syrjala completed 9 of his 22 pass attempts for 156 yards. Zane Radloff finished made four catches for 99 yards to lead Negaunee's receiving corps.
The Miners finished with 273 yards in total offense, and the special teams and defensive scores helped Negaunee seize the early advantage.
But they simply couldn't match Ithaca's overwhelming offense, which has rung up 648 points this season (54 per game), which, if its season ended today, would rank seventh in state history.
"These kids never quit," Jacobson said of his players. "They hung in until the end. They gave it everything they had. (Ithaca) just made some plays when they needed to. That was really the difference in the ball game."