Westwood Patriots have big shoes to fill: But head coach Scott Syrjala hopes momentum continues after Westwood’s 1st back-to-back winning seasons
(* West PAC Copper Division game)
Thurs., Aug. 29 — * HOUGHTON, 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 6 — * at Iron Mountain, 7 p.m. ET
Fri., Sept. 13 — * CALUMET, 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 20 — at Ishpeming, 7 p.m.
Fri., Sept. 27 — MANISTIQUE, 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 4 — * at Hancock, 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 11 — * L’ANSE, 7 p.m.
Fri., Oct. 18 — * at Gogebic, 7 p.m. ET
Fri., Oct. 25 — * NEGAUNEE, 7 p.m.
ISHPEMING — The Westwood High School varsity football team is seeking its third straight postseason berth this fall, which would also mark its fifth appearance in the last six seasons.
The Patriots are coming off a successful 7-3 campaign in 2018, marking the 11th winning season in program history and the first time WHS has strung together back-to-back winning records going back to its origins in 1974.
Despite losing 11 seniors to graduation, head coach Scott Syrjala, in his fifth season at the helm, said things are going smoothly in the first few weeks of practice.
“It’s going really well so far,” he said. “It’s early, we lost quite a few starters from last year, but we also have some kids who got some good playing time for us and got some experience.
“It’s touch and go. You’re just trying to see who fits where and you’re trying to put them in a position to be successful.”
The Patriots look to replace key players on both sides of the ball. In 2018, Westwood had the 1-2 punch of quarterback Nathan Beckman and fullback Ashton Bergman, who led the charge offensively, each rushing for more than 1,000 yards in just seven contested regular-season games.
While Beckman took the snaps, he was unanimously voted onto the West PAC Copper Division all-conference team as a running back. Bergman was also named all-conference as a fullback.
Beckman’s shoes will be difficult to fill, but Syrjala said he’s got guys who are capable of playing QB.
“We’re going to have kind of a quarterback-by-committee a little bit,” he said. “Taylor Dellangelo is taking some of the reps now. Garrett Mann as well. He was up with us last year as a sophomore, he played linebacker and multiple spots on offense.
“Those are two very capable kids that I feel can lead our offense. Both are kind of taking reps right now.”
Dellangelo served as a bit of a utility player on offense last season, primarily playing wide receiver, but also taking some handoffs and throwing a few passes downfield at times.
Beckman and Bergman were also contributors defensively.
Other losses on defense include defensive end Sam Gilles, who was named West PAC Copper Division Lineman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Hayden Mann was also a unanimous choice at defensive lineman.
One key defensive returnee will be Erik Anderson, who enters his senior season as an all-conference outside linebacker in 2018.
“Erik has been with us since he was a sophomore,” Syrjala said. “He’s done a really good job for us and we’re going to try to use him a little bit more this year.”
Other players Syrjala made note of are seniors Jackson Vidlund and Chad Pohlman, along with junior Michael Boissineau.
Boissineau and Vidlund are strong on the line of scrimmage, while the Patriots will look to Pohlman’s speed as a wide receiver.
“We’ve got quite a few guys that can all contribute in their own way,” Syrjala said. “We’re just trying to find who fits best where right now.”
Westwood’s regular season schedule is an exact copy of last year, except home and road games are reversed. The Patriots begin at home Thursday, hosting a Houghton team they shut out 42-0 in last season’s opener.
The Gremlins are coming off a 4-5 season and haven’t. had a winning season since 2013.
Despite those statistics, Syrjala won’t overlook any team as he sticks with the mantra he’s had for a long time, “one game at a time.”
“It has to be (one game at a time),” he said. “You overlook somebody in our conference, it’s going to come back to bite you.
“Houghton has their new field, new stadium and all that. I heard they’ve got some more kids out than they’ve had in the past. We can’t overlook them. I actually think they’re going to be good this year and I think it’s going to be a battle that first game.
“We weren’t overlooking them last year and you can’t look over anybody on our schedule.”
One game that will be circled, at least among fans, is the matchup with Calumet in Week 3.
The Copper Kings handed the Patriots two of their three losses last year, both defensive slugfests, once in a 14-12 bout in September and again in late October when Calumet earned a 6-0 win in the opening round of the MHSAA Division 6 playoffs.
Both those games were played at Calumet, and the Patriots get a crack at revenge on their home field this season on Sept. 13.
“I kind of look at Calumet as senior-laden last year,” Syrjala said. “We were a little bit senior-laden. Those kids are gone now, but it’s still Calumet. Maybe we can start a little rivalry. We had two great battles last year, unfortunately we fell (on) the short end of the stick on both of them.
“I hope our kids aren’t circling it or anything like that. I’m not. It’s just another opponent on our schedule that we’ve got to take care of.
“You’ve got an Iron Mountain team who was junior-laden last year,” he said about the Patriots’ Week 2 opponent. “They had a great junior class and they’re going to be really good this year. We’ve got our hands full and it’s a bit of a gauntlet to start the season.
“Houghton is better, then you go Iron Mountain, Calumet and Ishpeming. That’s some good football right there.”
Westwood will also hope to see Manistique and Bessemer this season, as those games were forfeited to the Patriots last season due to low numbers and injuries for the Emeralds and Speedboys.
As far as playoffs go, that’s an obvious goal for Syrjala and the Patriots.
“That has to be a goal, it really does,” he said. “Sure you want to go one game at a time, but if you’re focused in the moment on that one game and we can win our conference, we’ll make the playoffs.
“It’s nice making the playoffs, but I think our kids have an even higher standard yet. We’ve made the playoffs the last two years, won our first-round game two years ago, but then lost. Last year we lost a tough battle 6-0 to Calumet, which was a tough pill to swallow.
“It’s not only my expectation to try and make the playoffs, but we always want to try to better ourselves.”
With a lot of talent from last season gone, Syrjala said his team may be flying under the radar — something he’s OK with.
“I’m not so sure people are looking at us because we lost so many kids,” the coach said. “I’m not sitting here saying we’re going to be great, but I’ll tell you what we do have, and that’s really good effort from our kids.
“Our kids are learning and every single practice they’ve gotten better. That’s all I can ask them to do. If we continue to get better and continue that effort level, I hope good things will happen.”
Email Ryan Spitza at firstname.lastname@example.org.