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Still means plenty: Upper Peninsulaa Football All-Star Game revs up coaches, players alike

Westwood head coach Scott Syrjala, right, watches from the sidelines along with his players in a game against Iron Mountain on Aug. 31 at the Patriots’ field in Ishpeming. (Journal file photo by Trinity Carey)

“With Jeff retiring and him and I coaching together for so many years, I wanted one last chance also to coach with (him).” — Scott Syrjala, Westwood head coach, on coaching in the U.P. Football All-Star Game with former

Ishpeming head man Jeff Olson

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MARQUETTE — It’s that time of year again when high school graduates get a chance to put on the football pads one more time.

With the Upper Peninsula Football All-Star Game coming up Saturday afternoon, players and coaches gathered at the Superior Dome on Tuesday evening for photos and a chance to hang out with each other a little more.

Based on talking to a few of them, pretty much everyone seems to be having fun.

“The experience has been great so far this week,” Red Team head coach and Manistique assistant coach Cody Kangas said. “We’ve put a lot of our offense and our defense in. The kids have really responded well to come back from such a long break from football.

“To do the things that we’ve done so far and so quickly, these kids do a phenomenal job for us. It’s been really fun to be a part of this year. It’s my third year being a part of it, my fourth year if you count the first year I played in it. The experience has been phenomenal.”

Black team head coach Scott Syrjala, also the head man at Westwood, said he’s enjoying the week and said he wanted to coach this year to spend one last game with his former players and a good friend, state Hall of Fame and now former Ishpeming head coach Jeff Olson.

“The senior class that just graduated from Westwood is one of the more special classes I’ve been around,” he said. “They really are. The (Nathan) Beckmans, the (Sam) Gilles, the (Hayden) Manns. They’re great, great kids.

“I don’t get to coach them all. I don’t have my quarterback (Beckman), but that’s OK. I couldn’t be prouder of Nathan and what he’s accomplished up to this point. It was kind of my last chance to coach our Westwood kids one more time and that’s a little bit selfish, but it is because they’re such a great group of kids.”

A draft was held in March to determine the teams and some former Patriots will be on the other sideline with Kangas’ unit.

“The second thing was that I knew with Jeff retiring and him and I coaching together for so many years (at Ishpeming), I wanted one last chance also to coach with Jeff,” Syrjala said. “I know his staff really well. I’ve coached with them before and those guys are great. They really are.

“We’ve been having a blast this week. We get along. We know each other and we joke around with each other. It’s been a great week so far.”

The other perk for coaches is that they get to know kids that they’ve never met before. A lot of coaches only get to watch players from within their team’s conference or within their region of the U.P. Now they get to not only watch them, but coach them as well and that makes the week even more special.

“Being centrally located in the Upper Peninsula, we don’t get to see some of the eastern-end kids as much,” Syrjala said. “We don’t play them and they don’t come this way.

“So I was able to sit down today at lunchtime for about 45 minutes with some of the eastern-end kids, just trying to get to know them. What are your plans after high school and it’s really great. That’s the great part of coaching in this. I’ll see someone five or 10 years down the road and say, ‘Hey I remember him. I coached him in the All-Star game.’

“It’s a great experience not only for the players, which I think it’s an unbelievable experience, but I also think it’s a great experience for our coaches. I would like to say to any of our U.P. coaches out there that if you do get a chance to coach in this, give it a try because it’s a blast.”

The players are also having a blast with many of growing up wanting to play in it when they were little.

“It means a lot to me,” Marquette wide receiver Ethan Martysz said. “I’ve been dreaming about playing in this game since I was a little kid. I’ve been coming to watch since I was around 8 years old. I’ve been dreaming about scoring touchdowns in this game and just hanging out with friends for a week.

“It’s been a great experience so far and I’m really blessed to be playing in it.”

Ishpeming lineman Logan Kruhlik said that the game means a lot to him as well and he’s impressed with the high amount of talent that will be on the field in the Superior Dome in Marquette.

“This game is everything,” he said. “Obviously, everyone is talented enough and can play everything. It’s basically all scheme-ready. If you don’t have a good scheme, anyone can play anything, so this game is where it’s at.”

As fun as it is to play with other impressive football players, for a lot of the guys, the game is one last opportunity to suit up with their high school teammates and that’s what Gilles is looking forward to.

“I get to play with some of my friends for the last time,” he said. “I’ve been playing with these guys since I was in third or fourth grade. It’s going to be bittersweet when that final buzzer goes off, but hopefully it’s going to be a good ending.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.