DETROIT – We were almost there! The final weekend of the fall sports was about to start. The kickoff of the Division 8 State Championship game between Centerville and Ubly at Ford Field was only 30 minutes away. Against all odds the Michigan High School Athletics Association (MHSAA) had kept their promise. 

The fall season was coming to an oft-delayed conclusion. By the end of the weekend state champions would have been crowned in every sport. Personally, I was starting to feel confident. High school sports were back. The start of the basketball season was only 12 days away. What could go wrong? 

A Fall to Remember

It has been a memorable season for Gladwin County athletes. They may not know it yet, but the stories will grow over time. I would be willing to bet that if we have a winter and spring season most athletes will look back on this year fondly. The trial and tribulations will fade into a pleasant memory over time. Volleyball outside in August, it happens all the time, but usually at the beach and never with a mask. Football; off, on, off again, on. The regular season was only six games long, but for the first time in history every team made the playoffs. State championship games for both sports in January. Playing soccer and running a cross country race in a mask. Hopefully we will all look back some day and say remember when with a smile on our face. 

The football season was interrupted multiple times. Practice began on August 10 with the opening games scheduled for August 27. The Championship games were slotted for the traditional Thanksgiving weekend dates of November 27 and 28. But as we all know the best laid plans do not always work out in the face of a pandemic. After multiple delays and pauses I found myself at Ford Field on January 23 for the final games of the season.

The Division 7 game pitted New Lothrop against Traverse City St. Francis. Both schools should be familiar to local sports fans. New Lothrop defeated the Beavers in the second round of the 2019 football playoffs. At the time I thought that they looked primed to win the state championship. I was a year early. They made it to Ford Field this season and went on to claim a 42-35 win.

New Lothrop struck quickly in the first half going 59 yards on two plays to score on their first possession. On their next possession TCSF drove 67 yards on 14 plays to take their only lead of the game 7-6. New Lothrop’s Julius Garza returned the ensuing kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown. The Hornets went on to score three more touchdowns before the half taking a 35-7 lead.

The Gladiators regrouped at halftime and scored 21 straight points to cut New Lothrop to seven points with just under seven minutes left in the game. New Lothrop lead chewed up over four minutes on the next drive which went 72 yards in nine plays to extend their lead to 42-28. A late score by TCSF made the final score 42-35. This was New Lothrop’s second state championship in the last three years.

The football season ended for the Beavers back on November 6 when they lost to Oscoda in the second round of the playoffs. They finished 6-2 overall and were second in the Jack Pine Conference with a 5-1 record. Clare won the Jack Pine with a 6-0 record, but due to the abbreviated season the teams did not play. One of the highlights of the season was their double overtime 35-29 win over Gladwin. On a sad note when football returned after another pause the Owls were forced to forfeit their next playoff game because they didn’t have enough healthy players to compete. 

Multiple Beavers earned individual awards. Trent Reed received All State honors from the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association as a defensive back. First team All Jack Pine honors were bestowed on Jake Fischer, offense tackle; Mitch Hall, linebacker; and Reed, quarterback, secondary and punter. 

St. Francis has one of the better athletic programs in northern Michigan. They have multiple state championships in football and have been competitive in volleyball. The Beavers have eliminated them from the volleyball playoffs in both of the last two seasons. Beaverton downed the Gladiators in the 2019 quarterfinals and the regionals in 2020.

In spite of the pandemic the season was highly successful for the Beaverton volleyball program both individually and as a program. Starting outdoors in August and enduring several “pauses” didn’t prevent the Beavers from earning their second straight trip to Battle Creek for the Finals and establishing themselves as on of the best programs in the state. As is usually the case a successful team also yields individual honors. 

Molly Gerow earned First Team All State Honors for the second year in a row. Mady Pahl was named to the second team. Both girls have made their mark Gerow is the all-time kill leader Pahl holds the assist record. Gerow and Pahl were also First Team All Jack Pine.

After several early season races the cross country teams were able to get rid of their masks. The Beaverton Cross Country team was light on numbers, but did experience some individual success. Tessa Wohlschlegel and Nic Claypool both qualified for the Regional competition.

The Division 5 championship game between Grand Rapids Catholic Central (GRCC) and Frankenmuth wasn’t nearly as close as the Division 7 game. GRCC jumped out to a 14-0 lead with two touchdowns on their first two possessions. They went on to win 48-21. Catholic Central is as close to a “blue blood” as you get in Michigan High School Football. They won the Division 4 championship last season and have won five other state football championships. For Frankenmuth this was a break through season. The Eagles have qualified for the playoffs every year since 2011 and made it to the semifinals in 2016. 

Gladwin was part of the Division 5 playoffs this season with a 4-4 record. Highlights for the Flying G’s were a 26-20 win over Division 2 Dexter and a first round playoff win over Hancock, their first playoff win since 2013. The win over Dexter was especially impressive when you consider that the Dreadnaughts went on to win four of their next five games including their first round playoff game. The G’s were extremely young so the future looks bright. All Jack Pine performers for Gladwin included Kaden McDonald-end and secondary, Ethan Shea-guard and Logan Kokotovich-linebacker. 

Like the football team, the Gladwin volleyball team was extremely young this season with only two seniors on the team, Taylor Vasher and Emma Schwan. Many regulars on the squad were playing at the varsity level for the first time. The early season uncertainty and cancellations also played havoc with the young team. That being said the G’s grew over the course of the year and were playing good volleyball at the end of the season. A win over Chippewa Hills in the first round of district play gives Gladwin something to build on during the offseason. Vasher earned first team All Conference for her play this season.

In what seems to be a recurring theme for Gladwin sports this fall the soccer team was also very young. The team had a new coach, Domnic Lake, and only one senior.  Like all young teams there were some growing pains, but several players stepped up over the course of the season. Junior Jackson Raymond and freshman Treyton Siegert both received All Conference honors. While many other players gained valuable experience at the varsity level. 

The Gladwin cross country was also under new leadership as former runner Jordan Strohkirch took over as head coach. The team experienced almost immediate success as they won several invitationals and qualified multiple runners for the Regional competition. Wilson Bragg, Dakota Leddy and Ethan Edgar ran in the boys race while Racheal Nyarko and Kylee Zietz made the girls race. Bragg and Leddy were both first team All Conference.

Word began to leak out just minutes before the start of the first state championship game last Friday at Ford Field. With no warning to or consultation with the MHSAA the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services opened bars and restaurants, but closed winter contact sports. I say that somewhat “tongue in check”, winter contact sports were not actually closed they just can’t actually begin “real, sport specific activities.” One MHSAA official told me that on Saturday that as news of the continued pause spread through Ford Field on Friday morning there was a feeling of “total disbelief” among those present.

MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl commented on Saturday, “going back to June we had three goals. The first was to get our fall started and finished, our winter started and finished and last but not least our spring sports. Playing this weekend isn’t a finish line it’s the first third of the race. After this the real battle become getting all our winter sports going including our four contact sports.”

The testing program that allowed volleyball, swimming and football to restart and complete their seasons has been a success. Over 5,000 people were tested and only one percent had a positive test. Uly said that data from the MDHHS indicated that over 28,500 tests were conducted and the negative test rate was 99.8%.”What we have all tried to do since the beginning of this is to follow the science and data and I think that the data that we have been able to compile shows not only that we can play, but we can play safely.”

“We have been ready to go with our winter sports since November and whenever we are allowed to play we will play,” Uyl said. “Again the numbers and data that we have gained over the last month shows that this can be done safely. Our push is for every high school kid in Michigan to have a season this year that reaches the finish line. That continues to be our entire focus. We just need our government leaders to give us that chance.” Uyl also said that they were going to take the rest of the weekend to go over the various orders and come up with a plan.

Uyl issued the following statement Monday afternoon. “We are unable to provide specific plans yet as we are still evaluating the best options for delivering a memorable experience for 60,000 athletes involved in Winter contact sports. We will continue asking questions and advocating for all of our schools and athletes as we work toward building our next plans for seasons in basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey and wrestling. We will be ready with specific timelines as soon as MDHHS clears contact sports to begin full activity.”

“We have said from the start of the 2020-21 school year that we would do everything possible to have three seasons, and play all three to completion. Our strong advocacy for all sports and seasons – and especially Winter sports – continues every day.”

So that’s where we sit today. Contact practices are on a three-week hold after suffering several earlier delays. With no guarantee that they will be able to start on February 22 frustration is starting to boil over statewide. Student athletes have been voicing their displeasure on social media and several lawsuits have been threatened. Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Nickolai Vitti has even taken to Twitter to voice his displeasure with the current situation. It’s time for the MDHHS provide the data that allows bars to be open while sports are paused.

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