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Bittersweet memories for ’81 Vikes/Paul Peterson

September 28, 2011
By Paul Peterson , The Daily Mining Gazette

The word bittersweet is probably one of the most overused terms in the world of journalism.

But it's really the only fitting term to describe the 1981 Baraga High football team, which will be honored at halftime of the Hurley-Baraga football game Friday night at the Osterman Athletic Complex.

The exploits of that particular team are well-known among sports observers around the Upper Peninsula.

The Vikings of 30 years ago were a team that achieved perfection in going 9-0. Yet, they never had the opportunity to compete in the state playoffs because of the then-unequal standards set by the Michigan High School Athletic Association for postseason play.

One might say that BHS team was the poster child of a grass roots movement that moved - maybe even pushed - the MHSAA to finally change the format for the playoffs.

But the unbeaten Hancock High teams of 1983 and 1984 probably carry that distinction. The Bulldogs posted two straight unbeaten seasons and never played a postseason contest, a fact that caused enough of a commotion to get the format changed.

Six wins in a season nowadays automatically gets a team into the playoffs. And there's been numerous cases of 5-4 squads qualifying. And if I'm not mistaken, a team with a 4-4 record has even sneaked in.

For the 1981 Baraga team, that fact has to be mind-boggling.

Bill Carr, the coach of that team, knew he had a powerhouse coming into the season.

"We had an experienced and talented backfield, and we had a big and physical line," Carr recalled a few months ago. "I knew we had the chance to be very, very good that fall."

How good was that team? I covered most of their games in 1981, and I believe to this day they were as good as any Class D team I've ever seen up here.

That's not to say that a couple of future Lake Linden-Hubbell teams weren't as talented as that Baraga outfit. But perception is reality and seeing that team up close left a clear impression on me.

With the exception of a 14-7 win over a strong Bessemer team that featured future NMU star and Canadian Football League great Bob Jurasin, and a 35-20 win over a solid Houghton team that had versatile Bill Hauswirth, the Vikings steamrolled the opposition 30 autumns ago.

Led by a speedy tailback Lew Sawicky, who rushed for 1,959 yards and scored 30 touchdowns, Baraga was virtually unstoppable that long ago season.

Tim Gerard also set a local kicking mark that still stands with 32 PAT kicks and two field goals.

Their defense was sturdy, led by All-U.P. linebacker Carl Johnson and a giant (6-foot-5, 275) tackle in the late Don Carlson, who tragically died in a motorcycle accident this past June.

But something totally unexpected happened in the final week of the season when a downstate team lost to a heavy underdog.

That outcome created a domino effect that caused Baraga to fall short of a playoff spot by .003 of a point. That's about as close as you can shave it.

Forest Park, a team I firmly believe the Vikings would have defeated, easily pounded the team that took Baraga's place.

The Trojans made it all the way to the state championship game at the Pontiac Silverdome before losing.

It's nice that Bill Carr and his team will get together after all these years. And the memories will no doubt flow Friday night.

But for every person associated with that team .... the question of what might have been .... will undoubtedly linger.



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