GRAYLING — Like all the other teams still in the hunt for a state title in 11-man football, the Grayling Vikings have been in a holding pattern since mid-November when the state issued an order halting athletic activities from being held.
But, for now at any rate, the Vikings long delayed regional final game with the Negaunee Miners is scheduled for Saturday, with kickoff at 2 p.m. in Grayling. Both teams are 6-3.
Negaunee reached the state semifinals in 2003, while the Vikings have never been farther than this point in their history and after all they’ve been through this season they’d like to win their first regional title.
The Vikings get to host the game because they had more playoff points accumulated during the regular season, 26.667 to 22.000, based on wins, records of opponents and the size classification of the opponents.
Only two other Upper Peninsula teams remain in the playoffs, Iron Mountain in Division 7 of 11-player and North Central in eight-player Division 2, who are also scheduled to play Saturday.
Negaunee’s offense is keyed by its two power running backs in Nelson and Nash Hillier.
Gerald Johnson took over at quarterback after Will Luke was injured early in the season, and he’s really emerged as a confident and comfortable leader running the offense.
“They have some big linemen and a huge tight end, so it’ll be a battle in the trenches with the big boys up front,” Grayling coach Eric Tunney said. “We’ll have to play some good defensive football, and offense obviously, too.
“I’m just excited to cut the kids loose again and let them play. When they (MHSAA) shut down the last time, they had said they wanted to finish it (the playoffs) before New Year’s. That window closed.
“As soon as they got the green light (from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) they pulled some strings and got us the testing protocols. I know a lot of people spent a lot of time, and did a lot of hard work so these kids could finish up their season.
“Everything is contingent on the “pilot program” of rapid testing of players, coaches and other team personnel for COVID-19 as part of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ protocol that utilizes BinaxNOW antigen testing that produces results within 15 minutes, according to the MHSAA.Full-contact practices were prohiited by the state until the first round of testing, with teams were permitted to hold outdoor, noncontact conditioning and drills. Players were permitted to wear helmets and shoulder pads with physical distancing.
“Basically, the test is a nasal swab and then you put this solution on it, you wait 15 minutes and you have the results,” Tunney explained. “So far, we’ve been good.
“At the beginning it was kind of nerve wracking. It still is, because you never know who might have two lines on there. The kids have been great about it, and the parents for the most part have been on board. I’ll do whatever we have to let the guys play.
“The kids have absolutely unbelievable, with the cold weather, the snow and the ice. I was talking to one of our coaches and it’s kind of weird that I haven’t heard anyone complain of being cold or the snow. Kudos to the kids, they’ve been outstanding all season. Especially now.
“Negaunee had to stave off a late rally by Calumet with a big fourth down stop in the final minute of its third-round district championship game, preserving a 20-19 victory.
It was the Miners’ third straight road playoff victory, who earlier defeated Gladstone 28-14 on Oct. 30 and Westwood 42-14 on Nov. 6.
The Miners trailed 7-0 after the Copper Kings scored with 5:16 left in the first quarter, but the Miners answered that score on their first possession. Lukas Nelson scored on a 16-yard run. The extra point try failed and Negaunee trailed, 7-6.
Methodically advancing down the field behind its big offensive linemen paving a path through the Calumet defense, the Miners punched in the go-ahead touchdown on Nelson’s one-yard burst. Negaunee added what would prove to be the crucial two-point conversion for a 14-7 lead.
But the Copper Kings answered with a “Hail Mary” pass to the end zone with less than a minute left in the first half. But they missed the extra point, and Negaunee still held a narrow 14-13 lead at the half.
Calumet reclaimed the lead 19-14 in the third quarter after a failed two-point conversion.Parker Cain recovered a Copper Kings fumble, the only turuover in the game, and the Miners capitalized on it for the winning score when quarterback Gerald Johnson hooked up with 6-foot-5 Eli Luokkala streaking down the middle of the field for the winning touchdown.
“They have some big boys, and they like to run the ball a lot,” Tunney said. “Grayling’s field is in good shape according to Tunney, primarily because the weather has been unseasonably mild for this time of year.
“Field looks good,” Tunney added. “Our grounds crew have been working hard. They started painting it today (Wednesday). We’ve been mostly on the practice field.
“It’s been in good shape all year. We didn’t have any rainy, muddy days. I think the field will be in good shape. There’s a couple spots that we’ll touch up.”We’ll have a couple sideline heaters. One of our player’s dads has a good hookup with the propane company. He contacted me right away when we found out when we’d be playing. It’ll be good to have as a resource. We’ll have one for Nagaunee, too.
“Grayling has the ability offensively to spread things out a little more with Hunter Ventline having a good year throwing the ball, and good footing will certainly help the running game.
Tunner likes the Vikings’ offense because of its ability to adapt. They are more than willing to run the ball 50 times if they have to.It was learned Wednesday that spectators will be permitted for Saturday’s game. Each player will be allotted four tickets, and the MHSAA has set a cap of 125 people.