HOUGHTON - Two first-year head coaches lead their teams into tonight's Copper Bowl at Houghton High School, and although 2012 success has been limited, both have an eye on better days to come.
This year's edition is the 60th such trophy battle, and the visiting Bulldogs are the favorite to extend their lead in the series, which stands at 36-21-2. A loss last Friday to West Iron County in their home finale dropped the Bulldogs to 3-5, out of postseason contention.
"Obviously, the record isn't what I was looking for," Hancock coach Matt Walter said. "Right now, I think this team is better than their record. Right now the atmosphere is changing. Some of the games we've played, we've fought through adversity and that's what we need."
The Bulldogs have won the last two meetings, including a 38-8 decision when the game was last played at Houghton in 2010 and a 41-14 victory in the first Copper Bowl game played at the newly renovated McAfee Field last year.
"We're right there and we've just got to get over that hump, and a win against Houghton would be huge for us, huge for the program and hopefully it would lead into next year and the kids will be excited," Walter said.
The Gremlins enter the Copper Bowl 1-7 for the second straight year, but both times the one victory came in the week before the trophy game, in this case a 50-0 rout at Baraga last Friday.
"It was just good for the kids to see," Houghton coach Karl Borree said. "They've played pretty good at different times in the year, they just didn't play consistently."
Houghton's last winning season came more than a decade ago (in 2001), and Borree said expectations were for a tough year as the groundwork was laid for something better in the future.
"We have to establish an identity as a football team and that takes time. It's an enormously complicated thing because it's a cultural thing," Borree said.
The Gremlins have featured youth at the skill positions, starting with backs Ryan LaBerge, a junior, and Ben Collaer, a sophomore. Both have seen some time throwing the ball and both have been threats in both the running and passing games.
"When we run the ball well, come off the ball well and block well, that's the foundation of what we do," Borree said.
The Hancock offense has, at its core, workhorse back Ross Michaels, who is already over 1,000 yards for the season. The Chassell High School senior led all rushers with 96 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in last year's game despite playing on a badly injured ankle that caused him to miss the three games previous.
However, improving line play is a priority tonight after the Bulldogs failed to score an offensive point in their 17-7 loss to West Iron.
"We go as far as our offensive line does," Walter said. "Ross can only do so much and our line needs to step up."
The Bulldogs also have a dynamic passing game, led by junior quarterback Tanner Kearly. Kearly connected with Carl Leukuma late in the fourth quarter to cap a thrilling 19-18 WestPAC victory over Ironwood in Week 7.
On the defensive end, stopping the pass hasn't come easily for Hancock in recent weeks and taking it away from the Gremlins will be a priority.
"Obviously, our secondary has to step up and these seniors have to step up. It's their last game. I told them (in practice), do you want to leave on a good note or a bad note?" Walter said.
Getting the win tonight would solidify the effort of the seniors who were willing to learn a new offense and defense in this new regime, Walter said.
"They took a chance and I'm hoping that this will rub off on other kids and they'll take a chance, because we need the numbers," he said.
For Houghton, recent results have boosted their self-belief, Borree said.
"Now I think the mindset is that if they play good, they're a really good team." he said. "I think they're excited to play one more football game."