Road to the finals: Negaunee Miners football team gets multiple sendoffs during trek to Detroit

Negaunee's Nico Lukkarinen, right, leaps over Houghton's Joe Halonen, on the ground, as he runs the ball upfield in the second quarter of their MHSAA Division 6 high school football playoff game played at Miners Field in Negaunee on Oct. 28. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

NEGAUNEE — The Negaunee High School football team got a royal sendoff from the Upper Peninsula on Thanksgiving Day in the Miners’ quest to win a state football championship for the second time in two decades.

Negaunee will represent the region as the lone U.P. representative at the MHSAA 11-player championship games taking place today and Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit, the home of the Detroit Lions.

North Central made Yoopers proud last weekend as they captured an MHSAA eight-player state title in Division 2 at the Superior Dome in Marquette.

The Miners got a big predawn sendoff Thursday that featured people lining the streets and fire trucks and police cruisers with lights shining and sirens blaring in their escort out of their Marquette County hometown.

Then they reported they had another escort of vehicles, including first responders and an estimated 75 people, about an hour later in Munising. Included in that reception was a resident of the Alger County community, Greg Pond, who performed the NHS fight song during the team’s transit through that area.

When they weren't sleeping, Neguanee High School football players socialized Thursday on the bus taking them to Ford Field in Detroit for today's MHSAA Division 6 state championship game. The team was surprised when the bus arrived in Munising and their second escort group of the morning, consisting of first responders' vehicles of all sorts and a crowd estimated at about 75 people, cheered for the Miners. (Photo courtesy Negaunee Miners football)

Finally, upon the Miners’ exit from the U.P. was a sign of support at a toll booth in St. Ignace leading up to the Mackinac Bridge.

This Negaunee team, though, is taking two days to make the nearly 500-mile trip to Detroit, according to veteran head coach Paul Jacobson.

“We’re stopping in Mount Pleasant on the way down, where I still have some connections,” he said on Wednesday evening, alluding to his time playing football at Central Michigan University in the late 1980s and early ’90s and coaching at Mount Pleasant High School for several years after that.

He joined the Miners staff later on in the ’90s under Hall of Fame head coach Dick Koski before ascending to that position upon Koski’s retirement prior to the 2000 season.

Even though it’s been two full decades, Jacobson’s memories of winning the 2002 Division 6 championship — the same title the Miners are going for at 4:30 p.m. today — and the Negaunee teams of that era are fresh in Jacobson’s mind.

Helmets in hand, members of the Negaunee High School football team board buses before sunrise on Thanksgiving morning Thursday to begin their journey to Ford Field in Detroit. The Miners are playing for the MHSAA Division 6 football title this afternoon. (Photo courtesy Becky Jacobson)

“Comparing our group this year to 2002, I can see a lot of similarities,” the veteran NHS head coach said. “They’re two groups that were — and are — very unique, with a very special love of being together and a love of being on the football field.

“You can even include in there our group from 2003 that made the (state) semifinals.”

So he’s not overly worried about the current Miners’ approach to taking the big stage, which will include television coverage of this game and the seven other state finals on Bally Sports Detroit.

Seven of the finals games will be shown live — including Negaunee’s — with one apparently being shown later in the evening due to prior commitments with airing the Detroit Pistons and Detroit Red Wings.

“Especially on my end, since I also wear the athletic director’s hat, it’s been a short, action-packed week,” Jacobson said.

“But it’s great. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of emotion. I’m a live-in-the-moment-type of guy anyway, and now our focus is day to day.

“The big thing with our team is our preparation, looking forward and concentrating on what’s going on on the field.

“I don’t sense any nervousness, maybe some anxiousness and anticipation, but once the game starts, the surroundings go away and you get into the game.

“The focus is on what we have to do to get to that point. Just keep focusing on the task at hand.”

They’ll be facing an opponent they’ve never faced before, at least in Jacobson’s playoff history with the Miners — Grand Rapids West Catholic.

That’s because the Falcons had been a Division 5 — and one year Division 4 — team since the playoffs moved to numeric divisions in the late 1990s. This fall is the first time GRWC is in Division 6.

West Catholic actually defeated Menominee in the D-5 playoffs over seven consecutive years, the most recent in the state championship game in 2016.

Negaunee has played in Division 6 for most of the past two decades, though they could’ve crossed paths with West Catholic as both schools made the Division 5 playoffs in 2005 and 2008 — but neither got far enough to face each other in the semifinals or finals.

Both teams are playoff regulars. This is Jacobson’s 19th run in the playoffs in his 23 years at Negaunee, while West Catholic has only missed the playoffs once — in 2019 — in the past 20 seasons.

While the Falcons won a half-dozen state titles from 2010-17, they’ve also had years when they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.

“We know Grand Rapids West Catholic is going to be a challenge,” Jacobson said. “They can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally and they get the ball to their playmakers.

“I understand they have a running back who will be playing at Air Force.”

This will also be the Miners’ first time playing indoors this season, though they do have one game under their belts on artificial turf — their final regular-season game on Oct. 20 against Westwood that was moved to Marquette Senior High School due to an early-season snowstorm that made the Negaunee field unplayable.

“We don’t see that as a problem,” Jacobson said about a different feel for this game. “Actually, it’s kind of nice — we haven’t just been able to play a football game without conditions being a factor since the middle of October.”

Their playoff games so far have featured wind, rain and snow — and sometimes more than one of them at a time.

Finally, Jacobson reports the Miners are healthy — maybe more than a coach should expect at this point of the season.

“We’re fortunate, we’ve gotten quite lucky that after 15 weeks of practice and games that we’re pretty much intact,” the coach stated.

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


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