Negaunee will represent the region as the sole UP representative in the 11-man MHSAA championship games taking place today and Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit, home of the Detroit Lions.
North Central made Yoopers proud last weekend when they won an eight-man Division 2 MHSAA state title at the Superior Dome in Marquette.
The miners received a big predawn farewell on Thursday, with people lining the streets and fire engines and police cruisers with lights on and sirens wailing in their escort coming out of their hometown of Marquette County.
They then reported that they had another escort of vehicles, including first responders and an estimated 75 people, about an hour later in Munising. That reception included Greg Pond, an Alger County resident, who performed the NHS campaign song during the team’s transit through that area.
Finally, as the miners exited the UP, there was a sign of support at a tollbooth in St Ignace leading to the Mackinac Bridge.
However, this Negaunee team needs two days to make the nearly 500-mile trip to Detroit, according to veteran head coach Paul Jacobson.
“On the way down we’ll stop at Mount Pleasant, where I still have some connections.” he said Wednesday night, referring to his stint as a footballer at Central Michigan University in the late 1980s and early ’90s and then as a coach at Mount Pleasant High School for several years.
He later joined the Miners’ staff under Hall of Fame head coach Dick Koski in the ’90s before rising to the position following Koski’s retirement prior to the 2000 season.
Though it’s been two full decades, Jacobson’s memories of winning the 2002 Division 6 championship — the same title the Miners are seeking at 4:30 p.m. today — and the Negaunee teams of that era are fresh in Jacobson’s mind.
“If I compare our group this year to 2002, I see a lot of similarities,” said the veteran NHS head coach. “They are two groups that were and are very unique, with a very special love of being together and a love of being on the football field.
“You can even include our 2003 group that made it to the (state) semifinals.”
As such, he’s not overly concerned about the Miners’ current approach to conquering the big stage, which will include televised coverage of that game and the seven other state finals at Bally Sports Detroit.
Seven of the finals games will be shown live – including Negaunee’s – with one appearing to be shown later in the evening due to previous commitments to air the Detroit Pistons and Detroit Red Wings.
“Particularly on my side, as I also wear the sports director’s hat, it’s been a short, action-packed week,” said Jacobson.
“But it’s great. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of emotion. Anyway, I’m a live-in-the-moment guy, and now let’s focus on everyday life.
“The most important thing about our team is our preparation, looking ahead and focusing on what’s happening on the pitch.
“I don’t feel nervous, maybe some fear and anticipation, but as soon as the game starts, the environment disappears and you get into the game.
“The focus is on what we need to do to get to this point. Just stay focused on the task at hand.”
They’ll face an opponent they’ve never faced before, at least in Jacobson’s playoff history with the Miners – Grand Rapids West Catholic.
That’s because the Falcons have been a Division 5 team — and a Division 4 for a year — since the playoffs switched to numerical divisions in the late 1990s. This fall, GRWC is in Division 6 for the first time.
West Catholic actually defeated Menominee in the D-5 playoffs for seven straight years, most recently in the state championship game in 2016.
Negaunee has played in Division 6 for most of the past two decades, although they could have crossed paths with West Catholic as both schools made the Division 5 playoffs in 2005 and 2008 — but neither got far enough to face in the semifinals or finals.
Both teams are playoff regulars. This is Jacobson’s 19th run in the playoffs in his 23 years at Negaunee, while West Catholic have missed the playoffs just once in the last 20 seasons – in 2019.
While the Falcons won a half-dozen state titles from 2010 to 2017, they also had years when they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.
“We know Grand Rapids West Catholic will be a challenge,” said Jacobson. “They can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally and get the ball to their playmakers.
“I understand they have a running back who’s going to play in the Air Force.”
This will also be the first time the Miners have played indoors this season despite having one game under their belts on artificial turf — their final game of the regular season on Oct. 20 against Westwood, due to a transfer to Marquette Senior High School was relocated during the preseason snow storm that rendered the Negaunee field unplayable.
“We don’t see that as a problem” Jacobson said about a different feel for this game. “It’s actually quite nice – we haven’t been able to play just one football game since mid-October without the conditions playing a role.”
Their previous playoff games have seen wind, rain, and snow — and sometimes more than one of them at once.
Finally, Jacobson reports that the Miners are healthy — perhaps more so than a coach should expect at this point in the season.
“We’re lucky, we’re pretty lucky that after 15 weeks of training and games we’re pretty much intact.” explained the coach.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is [email protected]