Offense dominates at U.P. All-Star game
MARQUETTE — The greatest show on turf.
The nickname given to the St. Louis Rams of about 15 years ago was an apt description for what the best high school football players in the Upper Peninsula displayed at the Superior Dome on Saturday afternoon.
Coming from Ironwood to Sault Ste. Marie, from Calumet to Menominee, close to 90 players showed they deserved "star" status in the annual U.P. Football All-Star Game.
The East squad, which included players from Marquette, Alger, Luce and Schoolcraft counties, won for the sixth straight time, 41-24, since the game was resurrected in 2008.
Defenses on both sides got in their licks, forcing three turnovers while occasionally knocking down passes and stuffing runs behind the line of scrimmage.
But make no doubt about it, the offenses ruled the roost on the artificial turf with hot, muggy conditions both inside and out.
Nearly a thousand yards in offense was gained - 962 yards to be exact - including 11 plays of 20 yards or more.
The tone was set in the game's first two minutes after the teams traded nearly identical touchdown passes of 70 yards by West quarterback Jeff Johnson of Forest Park and 85 yards by East signal caller Alex Briones of Ishpeming.
Each QB scrambled left and set his feet, making a pass down the near sideline to a receiver 20 or 30 yards downfield. Those receivers - the West's Devon Harris of Menominee and the East's Kyle Winkelman of St. Ignace - had single coverage and simply beat their defenders on a straight-line sprint to the end zone.
Not surprisingly, the offensive most valuable player for each team was involved in those plays, Briones for the East and Harris for the West.
The number "four" also figured prominently. Briones finished the day with four TD passes while Harris had four catches.
"This was a lot like playing the best teams we saw in the playoffs," said another Ishpeming player, Bobby Zhulkie, who snared the East Defensive MVP.
His Hematites have won state championships the past two seasons.
"We've played like three seasons worth of games the last two years, so there's been a lot of tough teams on our schedule."
Briones, who completed 8 of 16 passes for 231 yards and no interceptions, agreed.
"You could tell they were hungry, because they came out strong," he said about a West team everyone called a big underdog during the lead-up to the game.
Neither team had more than a one-touchdown lead throughout the first three quarters.
The East didn't start to pull away until Sault Ste. Marie's Ray Anderson scored his second TD on the first play of the final period. With Jake Dodds of St. Ignace kicking the extra point, their team went up 34-24.
Another Ishpeming graduate, Mitch Laurin, whose name got left off the roster in the souvenir program, made everyone remember him when he caught his second TD pass from Briones with 6:08 left.
His first score came seconds before halftime on one of the day's many highlight-reel plays.
The East got the ball at its own 3-yard-line with 1:05 left before intermission. The team had just scored barely a minute earlier to pull within one point, 21-20, and decided to get aggressive with momentum in its favor.
Using two timeouts, Briones and fellow QB Jake Pearson of Rapid River marched to the West 27 with 21 seconds to go.
Briones then rolled out and still running right with multiple defenders converging, he lofted the ball left where Laurin outjumped his West counterpart, then eluded two more men to reach the end zone with six seconds left.