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Uncommon to be on the road: Ishpeming heads downstate for shot at Division 8 regional football title

Ishpeming’s John Corkin looks to get past Lake Linden-Hubbell’s Caleb Klein during their MHSAA Division 8 playoff game held Saturday at the Ishpeming Playgrounds. (Journal photo by Amy Grigas)

“We’re treating this game as a business trip.” — George Niemi, head coach, Ishpeming football

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ISHPEMING — Head coach George Niemi didn’t indicate if his Ishpeming Hematites football team will fly business class or first class this weekend.

Not that there is any difference when taking a bus on its business trip downstate for a Saturday game.

“I know last year the team had three home games in the playoffs, and we’ve been at home for both games so far (this fall),” Niemi said. “So we know these kids haven’t had the opportunity to travel for a playoff game.

“We’re treating this game as a business trip.”

The important business to conduct is to decide the MHSAA Division 8 regional championship against Beal City, which is hosting the game in nearby Mount Pleasant at the high school Oilers’ artificial turf outdoor field.

This third-round playoff game pits programs with similar winning traditions, similar strategic philosophies and even similar school colors — blue and white.

“Beal City, we know they’re a big, athletic team that likes to run the ball, just like us,” Niemi said. “They beat an undefeated Johannesburg-Lewiston team just last week, so we know they can play and compete.”

That sounds much like the 9-2 Hematites. What also sounds Ishpeming-like is the Aggies’ past playoff success. Though this year ended a two-year drought in the playoffs, Beal City (10-1) had appeared in the playoffs not only the previous 17 years, but 34 of past 37 seasons, too, from 1980-2016.

Each of those appearances were in Class D until the state switched to numbered divisions, where it has been in Division 8 since 2000.

The Aggies have made the state championship game seven times, going 2-5 with wins in 1994 and 2009 and losses in 1987, 2001, 2003, 2012 and 2013.

Ishpeming is making its second straight playoff appearance in Division 8 after two years out, and had made 14 straight appearances before that in the Jeff Olson era dating back to 2002. The Hematites also had six playoff appearances from 1975 to 2000, and boasts Class C state titles in 1975 and 1979 and Division 7 state championships in 2012, 2013 and 2015 with state runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2014.

Ishpeming’s “triple-headed monster” as Niemi has referred to it pounded the ball on the ground last week in a 30-18 district championship win over Lake Linden-Hubbell. Two of the “heads,” seniors Otto Swanson and John Corkin, scored fourth-quarter TDs to turn an 18-16 deficit entering the final quarter into a win.

“Each of them brings something a little different to the table,” Niemi said about the pair plus senior Ben Pruett. “With Otto and Ben, you just better get ready to get hit and pushed hard. With John, the line opens holes and he’s just so smooth making the cut and finding open grass.”

The trio accounted for all four TDs last weekend — two by Swanson and one each by Corkin and Pruett — and 296 yards on the ground. It mattered little that the Hematites were just 1 of 6 passing for 16 yards with all that grass-grinding output.

A week earlier in Ishpeming’s playoff opener, a 48-8 thrashing of Bark River-Harris, those three ran for six scores and Corkin threw for a seventh while they combined to roll up more than 400 yards on the ground.

The strong finish against LL-H was necessitated by a less-than-auspicious beginning to the game for the Hematites, who fumbled away the opening kickoff but kept the Lakes from gaining any points from it.

“Our kids don’t panic,” Niemi said. “We just kept trading touchdowns, trading scores for awhile until they could get control.”

He finds it interesting that Beal City is a ground-and-pound team while the Hematites specialize in stopping the run.

“I think where we have to get better is defending the pass,” he said. “We’ve seen it now where teams have gone to air against us for the past five or six games.”

All of those games were wins, by the way, against teams from Ishpeming’s division, the Iron Division of the West PAC.

“We’re about 95 percent healthy, we just have one player we’re hoping we can get back for Saturday,” Niemi said, echoing a comment about his personnel a week earlier.

The Ishpeming coach also said the Mount Pleasant-Beal City area has had snow on the ground.

“It’ll be a cold day,” Niemi said. “Their athletic director said there were going to get the shovels out there to shovel off the field.”

A victory by the Hematites sends them into the Division 8 semifinals to be played at a neutral-site field, which Ishpeming school officials hope will be the Superior Dome in Marquette. There’s quite a bit of doubt about that, however, with the 8-player state finals being played there the same weekend, along with competing claims by Division 6 playoff team Calumet and Division 7’s Iron Mountain if they also win this weekend.

Regardless of how that turns out, an Ishpeming win will make the trip home from their “business venture” feel like a first-class flight on a 747 jet.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.