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North Central Jets among four 10-0 teams vying for state football titles today

North Central football coach Leo Gorzinski stands among his players during a break in the action of the Jets’ MHSAA Division 2 eight-player playoff game against Marion at the Superior Dome in Marquette last Saturday. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

POWERS — After a football season that has started and stopped multiple times since Aug. 10, the North Central Jets will travel across the Mackinac Bridge today.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, they’ll do so to complete a long and often winding journey to the eight-player MHSAA Division 2 state championship game.

North Central will take on Portland St. Patrick in a matchup of 10-0 teams at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Legacy Center in Brighton. This will be the first of two championships game there, with the Division 1 finals between two more 10-0 teams, Suttons Bay and Adrian Lenawee Christian, set for about 5:30 p.m.

The Legacy Center is an indoor turf facility that became the site of the MHSAA eight-player championships in this pandemic-delayed season.

Midland Community Stadium was previously scheduled to host the two title games, but being outdoors was probably not found suitable for playing mid-January football, even in the Lower Peninsula.

Back at the beginning of the season, the Superior Dome in Marquette was expected to host the eight-player finals as it had done for the past several years, but the pandemic made MHSAA officials rethink the amount of travel most teams would have to make getting to the central Upper Peninsula.

North Central’s returning players remember the sting they felt losing on their home field in the 2019 regional final to eventual state champion Pickford.

“Since that loss, the kids having been working towards getting past that game, not only to get to the semis and now to the finals, but getting redemption for themselves,” Jets head coach Leo Gorzinski said. “Myself and the coaching staff take as much responsibility for that Pickford loss. We weren’t prepared or had the kids prepared for the field conditions, and Pickford was prepared.”

This season, with the exception of their Oct. 16 game, a snowy 34-22 win at Lake Linden-Hubbell played without a handful of quarantined players, the Jets cruised to victory in every regular season game.

They’ve even rolled big in each of their playoff victories, outscoring Engadine, LL-H, Cedarville and Marion by a combined 231-24.

St. Patrick, which plays an independent schedule, have had only two close games. On Oct. 16, the Shamrocks slipped past Merrill 26-22. In their regional championship game, PSP defeated defending 2019 eight-player Division 1 state champion Colon, 44-34.

St. Patrick outscored their opponents 435-183 compared to the Jets’ 539-66 advantage.

Here’s a look at some of the teams’ numbers:

• NC’s Associated Press all-state First Team sophomore quarterback Luke Gorzinski threw 20 TD passes on the season with no interceptions. Shamrocks’ senior QB Connor Cross threw for 21 TDs and one pick.

• The Jets defense has allowed around 1,000 total yards in 10 games, while St. Patrick’s defense has given up nearly 2,500 yards. The NC defense intercepted 13 passes this season, with almost half of them being returned for touchdowns; the Shamrocks defense picked off nine passes.

• The Jets defense only allowed two passing TDs all season in 114 pass attempts; while the Shamrocks defense allowed 12 in 126 passes.

“St. Patrick is going to bring with them a lot of playoff experience, their quarterback alone has four straight regional championships,” Coach Gorzinski said. “They’re going to have the best executed offense we’re going to face this season, we’re expecting a challenge from them, they have plenty of great athletes.

“They play different than we’re used to, they pass the ball a whole lot. (On defense) they tend to drop back and try to cut off passing lanes.”

St. Patrick made the switch to eight-player competition in 2012, and since then has been successful there. They were state runners-up to Pickford, 48-15, at the Superior Dome last season.

The Jets have seen great success since their switch to eight-player in 2015, winning the state championship that season and also in 2016. Gorzinski noted that the back-to-back state titles with Kevin Bellefeuil as Jets’ head coach is what really put NC football on the state map.

“We’ve been fortunate here at NC, this being my third year as head coach, we’ve had exceptional players,” Gorzinski said. “Kevin (Bellefeuil) got it all started and we’re grateful for that and all of the great athletes he coached.”

Gorzinski noted that he feels this year’s team may have a bit of an upper hand in comparison to the first two teams he led, due to the bond that this year’s squad has created through the pandemic.

The coach believes everyone is in the right frame of mind entering a championship game.

“The biggest hurdle at this point is the COVID(-19) testing, getting tested every 48 hours. It’s really taken away some of the fun and excitement of this whole experience,” he said. “But I guess it’s better than the alternative, which would essentially be not playing at all.”

Gorzinski said he thanks the Wells Sports Complex in Escanaba and the Superior Dome in Marquette.

“Getting to practice at those two places the last couple of weeks, getting the kids acclimated to the turf and playing in inside air, has been very beneficial,” he said.

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