Imagine your favorite college or pro football team having a good season and then the following year having to replace 19 of its 22 starting positions and its all-conference punter. You might say that could never happen in the pros or college, but prior to the 2013 season, it happened to the Gogebic Miners high school football team.
That's why this year has been a season of real accomplishment as the Miners rode into the MHSAA Division 8 playoffs with a 6-3 record. It was a repeat of the breakout 2012 season.
Gogebic plays at Crystal Falls Forest Park (9-0) Friday at 6 p.m. in a MHSAA Division 8 pre-district playoff game.
Only juniors Paul Buerger and Jess Mazzon returned as starters and saw extensive playing time in 2012. Linemen Tom Jackson and Hunter Reed had played a little.
Coach Mark Mazzon said this team of unknowns had its doubters, but he thought the season would come down to how the new players stepped into all those starting spots.
"The kids that didn't play much or at all were the key," Mazzon said. "We were asking a lot of these players. For us to be good, these kids had to step it up with the others. We knew we could get five wins, but we needed six to get to the playoffs. The biggest question was whether we could beat Hancock and Rudyard."
In the off-season, Mazzon began to see positive signs for this Gogebic team. There were many players who worked hard with the weights and conditioning.
In pre-season practices, Mazzon said the players continued their hard work, showed a lot of heart and began coming together as a team. They played well in their pre-season scrimmage.
But most of the players had never played in a varsity football game, so there were question marks about Gogebic when Hancock came to Wakefield for the season opener.
The Miners overcame the heat, their own mistakes and an evenly-matched Hancock team to win an exciting 28-26 overtime game. When Buerger plunged into the end zone on the final two-point conversion, the Gogebic bench erupted and surged onto the field to celebrate.
The game had that feel that something good was on its way for the Gogebic team.
"Winning that first game of the season game in overtime against a much bigger school was huge," Mazzon said. "It gave us a shot of confidence just like winning the first three games definitely helped. Confidence is such a big thing for high school kids. It got everyone involved working hard and coming together. Now, when we get on the field, we go 100 mph and the kids really play hard."
Opposing coaches all season mentioned the biggest thing they noticed about the Miners was their aggressiveness and how they "just keep coming at you."
But Gogebic lost its next two games to Lake Linden and Hurley. Mazzon conceded that Hurley had a real tough team this year but said the 22-20 loss to the Lakes was a "tough one" to take. It was implied that Lake Linden was a winnable game for the Miners. But that contest was Gogebic's only real hiccup.
The two losses gave Gogebic a 3-2 record and put them in a tough spot with a powerful Forest Park team still on the schedule. The Miners had to win three out of its final four games to secure a playoff berth.
Once again, it was mission accomplished as the Miners defeated Baraga, Washburn and Ironwood and were playoff bound.
Mazzon said a number of times during the year that he was proud of this team's regular season performance.
"They accomplished things with hard work, dedication and a lot of heart," Mazzon said. "It's what they put into it and that's why we're in the position we are right now. They're an awesome group of kids. And you need kids to play different positions. Everybody can't be the quarterback or running back. Our kids were willing to do that and you need that to win. Kevin Lane has played every position on the field."
On Friday, the Miners will start their second season against the beast from the east - the undefeated Crystal Falls Forest Park Trojans.
Coach Bill Santilli's team will have home field advantage and that's the way he likes it.
"We always tell our guys the regular season is something we use to prepare for the playoffs," Santilli said. "But we're not 9-0 anymore, we're 0-0. That's why I like the advantage of being home. We're in our own environment. The atmosphere is good with our band and a friendly crowd and no long bus trip. We've stressed to our players to get the best playoff point total to get home playoff games."
Santilli said this year's team has been a "pleasant surprise," because they started the year on offense with four seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and one freshman.
"The kids had to grow up in a hurry," Santilli said. "We only had one returning linemen and our game is ball control. We want to control the clock and keep the ball away from your offense. With hard work and effort, these kids have adapted to the varsity level very well."
Forest Park has scored a whopping 372 points this season (or 41.5 points per game).
Santilli said his offense became more diverse this season using second-year quarterback Jeff Johnson's running and passing talents. Scat-back Austin Snell was used to get to the edge and has good hands for catching passes. CFFP also has big backs to run inside.
The Trojans threw the ball more and ran their offense from the more wide-open spread and wildcat sets.
"It was a fun offense for the players to run and its success has grown on us," Santilli said. "That's the direction football is going in."
But Johnson, who is the triggerman in Santilli's offense, suffered a thigh injury against Lake Linden last week. Santilli said Johnson will sit out practices through Wednesday but will try to practice on Thursday. But he said he was not confident Johnson will be ready to play on game night. Johnson also missed the first game with Gogebic, but if there is any way he can go, you know he'll be out there. After all, it's his senior year and it's the playoffs.
Lee Graff leads the Trojan defense and was the Great Western Conference Linebacker of the Year.
Forest Park upended Gogebic 38-20 almost two weeks ago, but the game was closer than the score indicated.
"To beat a good team a second time is very difficult," Santilli said. "Gogebic is a very physical team that doesn't back down. They have a big line that comes at you. (Ben) Zielinski throws a real nice ball and Buerger runs very hard and plays very hard. Mazzon is a very good all-around player. They are a good caliber playoff team that possesses the ability to beat us. We have to be very well-prepared."
Coach Mazzon would like to take this season one step beyond, but this is not his first rodeo and he knows CFFP is the favorite after being undefeated and winning the tough Great Western Conference title.
"We're not the favorites, but there are upsets each week," Mazzon said. "Turnovers killed us in the last game and you can't have turnovers and penalties against good teams like Crystal Falls. You have to play flawless ball and that's what we plan on doing Friday night."