A few days after Christmas, Paul Jacobson drove past the Negaunee football field. It has been an inconsistent home to the Miners this year, as have fields across the UP to their respective teams.
It all started on Aug. 10, with news that the football season would go forward. Then it stopped. Then it started. Then it stopped again. Games were postponed. Then canceled.
Teams scrambled to find opponents, and frantically tested their players for COVID-19.
It’s been a whirlwind at best, and chaotic at worst. And yet, as Jacobson looks out the window of his vehicle, he gets a reminder of why this is all worth it.
There he sees a group of kids playing football. He thinks to himself that one of them must have gotten the ball for Christmas, and here he is, testing it out with his friends. They are unbothered by the snow on the ground, or the chill in the air. They simply want to play a game together.
That’s what football is, after all. A game.
“That is part of growing up in this part of the world,” Jacobson said of playing in the snow. “It’s fun. And it kind of fits with our mentality a little bit. We are just happy to have the opportunity to play again.”
After many delays, the Miners (6-3) are set to take on a 6-3 Grayling team on Saturday for the regional quarterfinals.
Negaunee is one of two UP teams left in the 11-player playoffs that started back in October. The other is Iron Mountain.
While Negaunee is getting comfortable playing in snowy conditions, the Mountaineers are prepping to play inside, taking on an undefeated Johannesburg-Lewiston team (8-0) at the Superior Dome.
The Mountaineers are familiar with the facility, after playing there in last season’s state semifinals, and coach Robin Marttila said his team (3-0) is looking forward to competing there once more.
“We feel really good about playing there,” he said on Wednesday. “It is a great opportunity for our kids. I think it is the right thing to do in the middle of January. To play outside on January 9 in Iron Mountain is not what is best for the kids.
“Northern gave us the opportunity to play there, and they’ve been gracious hosts. We had a good practice yesterday, and we are happy with what we accomplished. Hopefully that pays dividends on Saturday.”
Over the last two weeks, the Mountaineers haven’t spent any time on their field, instead opting to practice in the gym, in order to recreate similar conditions to the Dome.
The team has handled the adversity of the season well, largely thanks to its experienced core. Several players were a part of last year’s squad, including an All-UP trio of running back Caleb Evosevich-Hynes, defensive tackle Caleb Burklund and linebacker Bryce Pietrantonio.
“We are hoping that experience helps on Saturday, and we will just go from there,” Marttila said. “At the end of the day, we’re playing a football game. It doesn’t matter where we have been, it just matters that we are going to play a regional final on Saturday afternoon.”
In order to keep his team in the right frame of mind, Marttila has asked his players to treat Saturday like the first game of a season.
“In any first game of the season you have to take care of the football,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 priority on offense. And then we have to play fundamentally sound in terms of blocking and tackling.”
Jacobson and the Miners are taking a similar approach for their game against Grayling. The right mindset is key.
“Always in games like this, you have to play to win, and not play to not lose. Especially with high school kids, when you play not to lose, and play hesitant you’re worried about making a mistake. We just have to play to win with confidence.”
Negaunee struggled with numbers throughout the regular season, thanks to COVID cases and protocols, but the Miners will have their full roster on Saturday, including Will Luke, who was injured at Gladstone on Sept. 25, before coming back in the district final against Calumet.
“It has been crazy up and down, but you look at the resilience of these kids, we have a team that is just happy to be around each other and happy to come to practice,” Jacobson said. “That is the key to all of this.”
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