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Keep chugging along: Ishpeming Hematites win 6th football game in a row to continue run in playoffs

Ishpeming’s Otto Swanson dives into the end zone to score a touchdown against Lake Linden-Hubbell during their MHSAA Division 8 playoff game held Saturday at the Hematites’ field. (Journal photo by Amy Grigas)

“We ran it against them in the first game and we were successful again.” — George Niemi, Ishpeming football head coach, on playing a no-huddle offense vs. Lake Linden-Hubbell

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ISHPEMING — Had you looked at Ishpeming’s record through the first five weeks of the season, you might’ve thought that the Hematites were going to have an average year at best.

But great programs find ways to win, and since starting off 3-2, the Hematites have won their last six games as their playoff journey remained alive on Saturday with a 30-18 win over Lake Linden-Hubbell.

This was an MHSAA Division 8 district final game played under cloudy skies and 30-degree temperatures at the Ishpeming Playgrounds.

Ishpeming (9-2) hits the road for the first time this postseason, traveling to face Beal City (10-1) for a regional final. Whether the game, which also could be played in nearby Mount Pleasant, will be played Friday night or Saturday afternoon hadn’t been announced by early this morning.

The Hematites have seen Beal City once before in Week 6 of the 2014 season, a 20-0 win for Ishpeming.

Where things have gotten interesting this playoff season is Ishpeming’s side of the Division 8 bracket, which saw some favorites fall over the weekend. The unranked Aggies defeated the No. 3-ranked team in Johannesburg-Lewiston (10-1) 33-20, while No. 4 Breckenridge (9-2) fell to unranked Saginaw Nouvel (7-4) 46-28. Breckenridge was Ishpeming’s regional final opponent last season, eliminating the Hematites by a score of 12-6 in a defensive slugfest.

No. 2 Harbor Beach (10-1) also fell to No. 10 Ubly (9-2) 34-20, meaning the field could now be wide open, and the Hematites could return close to home to play a state semifinal, should they get by the Aggies.

Going back to Saturday, it was bound to be a good game after the Hematites and Lakes had a 36-34 shootout back in Week 2, a game Ishpeming won on a go-ahead touchdown by John Corkin with 6.9 seconds remaining in the game.

Their playoff meeting was no different, with the score 18-16 in favor of LL-H entering the final 12 minutes.

The Hematites held the Lakes scoreless in the fourth quarter while getting two touchdowns of their own, the first from Otto Swanson with 11:30 remaining to put his team back in the lead 22-18, and the other from Corkin with 1:02 left to add insurance and give Ishpeming its second consecutive district title and first under the leadership of head coach George Niemi.

“It feels great,” he said. “I couldn’t be more happy for the community, for the kids, for the coaching staff; it just feels great.”

What wasn’t a great feeling was entering the final quarter with a deficit, especially when your team is in that deficit because of its own mistakes. At times, several Ishpeming drives were going more backward than forward.

“The big thing is not to panic,” Niemi said. “Just one play at a time. We just needed to eliminate mistakes. We kept killing our drives on our own. They weren’t stopping us; we were shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Swanson led Ishpeming with two TDs and 137 rushing yards on 16 carries. Corkin added 87 yards including his game-deciding score on 16 carries, while Ben Pruett rushed for 72 yards and a TD on 26 carries.

“Again, it’s a triple-headed monster,” Niemi said of his three offensive powerhouses. “We’ve got three backs out there. We can rotate them in, rotate them out, and they give us a different look each time one of them is back there.”

Another strategy Ishpeming utilized was a no-huddle offense. The Hematites rolled with the no-huddle from their opening possession all the way through the fourth quarter as they looked to wear down the Lakes’ defense.

“We’ve been using the no-huddle since we played them in the last game in Week 2,” Niemi said. “The whole idea was to not allow them to call their defense. They’ve got to set up on the line while we’re setting up our formation. We ran it against them in the first game and we were successful again with this game.”

It was a rebound year for the Lakes, who returned to the playoffs after a 2-7 record in 2018. The smallest 11-man program remaining in the state finished with a record of 7-4 after making its sixth playoff appearance in the last seven years and 13 of the last 16.

The Lakes’ three touchdowns all went through senior quarterback Carter Crouch, who was 8 of 21 passing for 170 yards. Crouch connected with Caleb Gregoire twice and William Lyons once for their three scores.

Ishpeming fumbled away the opening kickoff, but the Lakes were unable to capitalize. The only TD of the first quarter by Swanson, a 3-yard rush with 2:29 left. His conversion run was good to put the Hematites up 8-0.

LL-H fired back on the first play of the second quarter, however, with Crouch finding Gregoire deep over the middle for a 51-yard TD pass to make it 8-6. The conversion attempt from Brandon Lavigne was no good, and that was also the halftime score.

After Corkin was intercepted by Caleb Klein, who ran the ball back to the Hematites’ 27, the Lakes cashed in five plays later on a 16-yard TD pass from Crouch to Lyons on 2nd-and-10 to make it 12-8 LL-H in the third.

Swanson answered that call with two runs of 20-plus yards, which set up Pruett for a 10-yard TD with 5:27 remaining in the third.

Crouch’s third strike of the day was to Gregoire for his second of the game with 1:41 remaining in the frame, putting the Lakes up 18-16 entering the fourth.

It took Swanson three plays to put Ishpeming back in the lead with a 1-yard rush on 1st-and-goal to make it Ishpeming 22-18.

LL-H had three possessions in the fourth to try to get the lead back, but were unable to find the end zone. The major turning point was Crouch getting picked off by Ishpeming’s Tanner Romback on a 3rd-and-17 with 2:42 remaining. Four plays later, Corkin put it in the end zone on a 9-yard run to all but seal the deal with just over a minute to go.

Ishpeming finished with 312 yards total offense to Lake Linden-Hubbell’s 241.

As a team, the Hematites were 1 of 6 passing, with Corkin going 1 for 3 with a 16-yard completion to Jacob Kugler, who was targeted twice. Kugler also had a fumble recovery on defense.

Gregoire led the Lakes’ receiving corps with four catches for 79 yards. On the ground, LL-H rushed for 71 yards on 34 attempts, with Jesse Hill carrying nine times for 32 yards.

Email Ryan Spitza at sports@miningjournal.net.