Battle of the unbeatens: Ishpeming will host Breckenridge this Saturday

Ishpeming’s Drake Sundberg dives across the goal line as he scores a touchdown in the first quarter of their game against the West Iron County Wykons.Friday. The undefeated Hematites host another unbeaten in Breckenridge at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Ishpeming Playgrounds. (Photo courtesy of Daryl T. Jarvinen)

ISHPEMING — To say the Ishpeming football team is clicking right now might be an understatement.

The Hematites are just flat-out dominant on both sides of the field and it doesn’t look like that’s going to stop anytime soon.

Ishpeming blew past an injury-plagued Gwinn team in the first round of the MHSAA Division 8 Playoffs and then pounded past West Iron County in the district final. Based on those two games, one might think the Hematites look well on their way to another trip to Detroit and Ford Field.

However, this Saturday will be Ishpeming’s first true test of the playoffs. Not to take anything away from the Modeltowners and the Wykons, but the Hematites had already faced them in the regular season and defeated both of them.

Breckenridge (11-0) is a completely different opponent from Ishpeming’s previous two opponents in that it’s undefeated and is maybe one of the few programs that can keep up with the Hematites as it handled its first two opponents just as easily as Ishpeming did.

“They (the Huskies) have great athletes and great speed and they’re big,” Ishpeming head coach Jeff Olson said. “Two of their best skill players (Hunter Collins and Lucas Ebright) were on their state championship relay team so they’re fast. Their quarterback (Carter Staley) runs the ball extremely well and they run a veer offense where he’s reading the defense whether to give it to the fullback or take it himself. He’s elusive and he’s got some tall receivers. They’re offensive and defensive lines are big, so they’re an imposing team. We’ve been in this position before and we’ve played great teams before. So we’re preparing to stop what they like to do.”

The Huskies had been a down program for quite some time, but have excelled in the last couple of years. In 2016, Breckenridge won its first conference title since 1947 and made its first playoff appearance since 1993. The Huskies won another conference title last season and notched two playoffs wins, the first two in program history.

When asked if preparing for a downstate team is more difficult than Upper Peninsula opponents like Gwinn or WIC, Olson said it can be, but that’s what makes it interesting.

“It’s harder in some aspects because it’s brand new,” he said. “You don’t have a feel for what they’re doing and what they’re thinking. But on the other hand, it’s more exciting because you are playing somebody you don’t know. I like that exciting competitiveness part about it. We’re playing somebody new, from below the bridge, and a whole different area. That’s the cat-and-mouse game that we like as coaches, trying to figure out the other team and what they’re trying to do and what their methodology and what they’re thinking.”

Looking back at last week’s game against the Wykons, the Hematites definitely seemed to know what WIC was thinking as they scored pretty quickly and didn’t look back. Ishpeming got a touchdown on its opening possession and after committing an early turnover, it started putting more points on the scoreboard quickly.

“I thought we started out pretty well,” Olson said. “We drove right down the field and scored in five or six plays. Then we stopped them right away on three downs and then the next time, we drove all the way to the 5-yard line and fumbled.

“I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage both offensively and defensively. We were hit with a mistake that cost us the first time we played them (the Wykons). You always wonder if this is it or ‘here we go again,’ but this team has battled back from mistakes, and being down before, and they did it again. I wasn’t too worried and after that, once we got the ball back and we started to score. The big thing is that we played great defense and we kept them out of the end zone, but we (also) were moving the ball well. We just had that one big mistake and we controlled the game from there.”

Olson also said his squad fixed some of the issues that it had coming into the playoffs, but he knows the work is far from over as the road to Detroit will only get tougher.

“I think we’re doing better defensively and not giving up the big play,” he said. “We’re moving the ball well. We had over 500 yards of total offense, but we’re coming up against some great teams. We have to be at our peak to be able to compete with those teams, but we’ve played really well so far against those teams we played.”

Overall, Olson says the Hematites are feeling good heading into their showdown with the Huskies, but that they know that things can go wrong quickly and they’re preparing for that.

“I think the confidence is there because we’ve been playing well, but we’re also wary of what could happen and how we can shoot ourselves in the foot,” he said. “We’re making sure that we’re doing things right all the time whether that’s technique-wise or handling adversity. These kids know things can snowball against us in a hurry, so we’re trying to cover all our bases. But they’re very coachable and it’s a great group of kids to coach every day.”