Hard to top best season ever

But Patriots will try with their 2018 emphasis on ‘one game at a time’

This is the Westwood HIgh School Patriots varsity football team for the 2018 season. In the front row from left are Dakota Rodda, Chad Pohlman, Sam Gilles, Taylor Dellangelo, Matthew Paavo, Dylan Bebee, Adam Hyttinen, Evan Rae, Ashton Bergman and Anthony Couveau. Top row from left, Ty Alderton, Nathan Beckman, Hayden Mann, Mason Mariuzza, Zach Niemi, Erik Anderson, Jacob Adriano, Troy Anderson, Jackson Vidlund and Blake Hewitt. The Patriots' head coach is Scott Syrjala and assistant coaches are Brad Wiljanen, Mitch Messing, Bobby Zhulkie, Scott Mann and Seth Tackman. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

ISHPEMING — “One game at a time” is the No. 1 theme and emphasis for the Westwood High School varsity football team entering this fall season.

Admitting it may be a cliche statement, head coach Scott Syrjala still believes that’s what it will take for his team to build on a successful 9-2 campaign in 2017.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say the old cliche is to take it one game at a time, and I think our kids are doing that,” he said. “The hope obviously is to win the first game and then take every game that you can. Be in a position to win the conference, be in a position to try and make the playoffs, get into the playoffs and then once you’re there, take it every game (one) at a time and make a deep run if you can.”

In 2017, the Patriots turned things around in a big way after a 2-7 record the year before. In 2017, the Pats had one regular-season loss to Gladstone, 20-12, and won a first-round MHSAA Division 7 playoff game against Elk Rapids 30-0 before bowing out to Lake City 25-16 in the district final.

Last year’s 9-2 mark was the best campaign in school history, and a move to the new-look Western Peninsula Athletic Conference — West PAC — along with fellow schools from the now-dissolved Mid-Peninsula Conference — at least in football — may make for a big challenge ahead.

With the West PAC now numbering 16 schools, the league was split in two, the eight largest schools by enrollment, including Westwood, going into the A Division.

That gives each school in the league seven conference games and two considered nonconference as they are “crossover” games pitting an A Division team against a B Division opponent.

For Westwood, they will have A Division opponents that include M-PC holdovers Iron Mountain and Negaunee. And their two B Division nonconference games also come from the M-PC, Ishpeming and Manistique.

From the West PAC, other A Division opponents include L’Anse, Houghton, Calumet, Hancock and Gogebic, the latter the co-op of Ironwood, Bessemer and Wakefield-Marenisco.

Houghton has been on the Westwood schedule as a nonconference opponent for the last 16 years, while L’Anse has appeared on the Patriots’ slate for the past three seasons.

The Patriots haven’t seen Hancock since 2008, and have never faced Gogebic or Calumet.

Syrjala said the conference is wide open between a strong Calumet team, some young former M-PC foes and others, too.

“Calumet is getting a lot of people back, Negaunee was really young last year; Gogebic is always strong; Iron Mountain is going to be really good, they were young,” he said. “Same thing with the small (B) conference teams. You’ve got Ishpeming, Gwinn, Lake Linden-Hubbell and Munising.

“I think it’s wide open, I really do. It’s a very competitive conference. You come out of the West PAC this year as a playoff team, you’re proven. It’s going to be exciting.”

As for having the players to rise to the challenge and make a conference and playoff run, Westwood returns several key players.

One of the most notable returners is quarterback Nathan Beckman. The dual-threat senior had 1,059 rushing yards last season and 572 as a passer.

Syrjala said his All-Upper Peninsula quarterback has improved in the off-season and is still making progress.

“He’s a hard-working kid,” he said. “We’re trying to get him to do a little bit more and do some normal progression. Maybe do one more read when he’s passing or something like that.

“His decision-making is getting better, we’re still working on his footwork and vision and things like that.

“He works hard at it and he is a dual-threat quarterback.”

Another key player on offense is running back Ashton Bergman. Also a senior, Bergman rushed for 447 yards in 2017.

Other notable returners Syrjala mentioned are receiver Jacob Adriano; running back Taylor Dellangelo, who was called up as a sophomore last season; All-U.P. defensive ends Sam Gilles and Blake Hewitt; as well as Hayden Mann, who returns from an injury suffered in the Gladstone game last season.

While several star players return, Syrjala said his team still has gaps to close after losing five key starters from last season.

“We do have some people back, but six guys don’t make a team,” the coach said. “We need to find five or six other guys that fit in. I know there’s been a lot of talk about Westwood being good and that we have a lot of people back but I’m not so sure people realize some of the holes we have to fill.”

Syrjala won’t let that affect his team’s game plan and mentality, though. He believes voids will be filled and the team will be competitive again.

“I hope to compete every single game,” he said. “We have a tougher schedule this year. A team like Calumet and Gogebic, we still play Iron Mountain, Ishpeming, Negaunee. L’Anse is also going to be solid this year.

“We went into this season before the West PAC move looking for games. This allows us to get a good, competitive schedule.

“If it’s harder, well then too bad, so sad. We have to step up to the challenge. Our kids need to rise to the challenge and we need to practice like that’s where we want to be.”

Westwood opens the season on the road against Houghton at 7 p.m. Friday.

Email Ryan Spitza at sports@miningjournal.net.