Using painful ‘17 as a positive: Young Ishpeming Hematites football players getting thrust onto field pays off in experience this fall

This is the 2018 edition of the Ishpeming High School varsity football team. In the front row from left are Mike Walker, John Corkin, Bain Delongchamp, Hunter Smith, Nolan Corwin, Gavin Sundberg, Matt Trawick, Andrew Cox, Tommy Sjoholm and Tanner Romback. Middle row from left, Devon Nyman, Alaric Martin, Owen Morton, Drew Patron, Drake Sundberg, Braeden Arsenault, Tom LaFave, Ethan Sigala and Ben Pruett. Top row from left, assistant coach Mike Walker, Chase Jensen, Zack Jandreau, Logan Kruhlik, Otto Swanson, Jake Kugler, Ty Kauppinen, Drake Asgaard, assistant coach Kyle Redman and head coach Jeff Olson. (Journal photo by Ryan Stieg)

2018 Ishpeming Hematites schedule

(* West PAC “B” game)

Friday, Aug. 24 — * at Manistique, 7 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 31 — * LAKE LINDEN-HUBBELL, 7 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 7 — * NORWAY, 7 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 14 — at Westwood, 7 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 21 — NEGAUNEE, 7 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 28 — * at Gwinn, 7 p.m.

Saturday, Oct. 6 — * at West Iron County, 3 p.m. EDT

Friday, Oct. 12 — * MUNISING, 7 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 18 — * at Bark River-Harris, 7 p.m. EDT

————————

“You can feel sorry that you had all that bad luck and injuries, or see it as we won our last game without 9 kids and without 7 starters. We tend to look at the positives.” — Jeff Olson, head coach, Ishpeming Hematites

————————

ISHPEMING — Injuries can destroy a team’s quest for an MHSAA playoff berth.

That pretty much doomed the Ishpeming Hematites football team last season.

After four straight trips to the MHSAA Division 7 state title game, three of them victories, the Hematites missed the playoffs in 2016 and were looking to bounce back in 2017.

On paper, it looked as if that would be the case, but over the first couple of weeks, things unraveled quickly as Ishpeming was dealt injury after injury, basically decimating the roster and ensuring that the Hematites would miss the playoffs again.

“A lot of things didn’t go right last season,” Hematites head coach Jeff Olson said. “For injuries, it was the worst I’d ever seen as far as not only in my program, but in other programs.

“We had to bring up six sophomores to make 22 kids (at season’s start) and we ended the season with 11. The injuries came early in the season and they were severe, year-ending injuries. So we were constantly putting new kids in new positions and putting offenses and defenses together.

“You can look at it in a couple ways. You can feel sorry that you had all that bad luck and injuries, or see it as we won our last game without nine kids and without seven starters.

“We tend to look at the positives. We gained some experience with the kids that were in there and we were happy with their effort. Hopefully, that will pay off big dividends next year.”

Olson said that experience has paid off so far in the first few days of practice after the underclassmen were cast into the fire last year. They were already set to go on both sides of the ball at the first whistle.

“You can tell that they’re so much farther along right now than they were last year,” he said. “It was probably a culture shock for a lot of them last year because they were pressed into playing two ways and had to play a lot of minutes.

“They had to learn things quickly because some of them we had to bring up right at the beginning of the year and we had to bring them up just so we could field enough for a team on Friday nights.

“They had to learn in a hurry and I look at it as it’s a blessing for this year. It wasn’t as fun … last year, but they’ll be better for it this year.”

Looking at this year’s roster, Gavin Sundberg will take over at quarterback after splitting time last year with Donald Denofre.

Last season, Sundberg was one of the players that went down with a season-ending injury, so he only played 2 1/2 games. However, Olson said during that short time leading the offense, Sundberg learned quite a bit. The coach describes his signal caller as a player who is “not big in stature, but does a lot of things well.”

The pressure won’t all be on Sundberg, though.

He’ll have Drake Sundberg in the backfield (who also had a season-ending injury last year) along with Hunter Smith, Matt Trawick and Zach Jandreau.

Olson said all of them will play some at receiver as well, and he also said Braeden Arsenault will be back in the lineup after missing the last two seasons with a knee injury.

Where that experience from 2017 will definitely help is on the offensive line.

Most of this year’s linemen are juniors who got a lot of playing time earlier than would normally be expected. Not only that, but the linemen are big, which is something the Hematites have been lacking for awhile.

Olson said his tight ends have some size as well, and with Gavin Sundberg’s arm, Ishpeming will probably be passing the ball a lot more than the last couple of seasons.

If there is an asset other than experience that Ishpeming has over other teams, it’s depth. Last season, the Hematites struggled to get more than 20 kids to come out to play.

But this year they have 26, which Olson said is more than he’s had in many years. That depth will help limit how much injuries can hammer the Hematites and will also keep the players fresh instead of being on the field for every single play.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Ishpeming’s lack of a placekicker, so fans can expect the Hematites to be going for two-point conversions after every touchdown.

“We have kids who kick the ball but I don’t know if they’re kickers,” Olson said with a laugh.

After a few days of practice, Olson likes what he sees so far and said that there’s a lot of passion in this year’s players.

“We have some great kids and they’re great kids as well off the field and on the field,” he said. “They did a lot of community service stuff this summer and that carries over to on the field where we’re grasping things quicker than we have in the past. It’s been a good three days and I’m sure it will continue.”

The Hematites will play in the West PAC “B” Division, the smaller set of eight teams in the 16-team league based on enrollment.

Seven games will be “B” division games that count in the league standings, with next-door neighbors from the “A” division, Negaunee and Westwood, rounding out the schedule.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.