Old rivals combining forces

It probably didn’t come as much of a surprise, but the recent decision by Baraga and Ewen-Trout Creek High School to enter into a sports co-op next football season with two old rivals still raised a few eyebrows.

The Vikings, who had fielded eight-person teams the last few seasons, will now combine with L’Anse. Ewen-TC will enter into a similar pact with Ontonagon.

Now, there was a time when I, for one, thought this would never happen.

The rivalry between the Vikings and Hornets had been a very intense one over the years on the gridiron.

Under coach Jeff Markham, BHS was very competitive in the rugged Great Western Conference. They even qualified for the playoffs a few times.

But in recent seasons, Baraga had fallen on hard times. They had no choice but to go to 8-man football a few seasons back.

Ewen-TC and Ontonagon also had a keen football rivalry, albeit not as fierce as the Baraga-L’Anse matchup.

Under late coach Bob Carlson, the Gladiators were a perennial Upper Peninsula power. They typically overpowered the Panthers in their annual meetings.

But OAHS grid fortunes have slipped in recent seasons, mainly because of an economic downturn in the region.

The L’Anse-Baraga program will continue to play 11-man game, while the Ontonagon-E-TC will stay in 8-man.

Coach Mark Leaf’s Hornets have healthy numbers all the way down to the lower grades. The LHS JV team had a reported 28 players last season.

On the other hand, Ontonagon’s numbers at the varsity level have slipped. They didn’t field JV teams the past couple of seasons.

The Gladiators and Panthers tandem could be a force to reckon with in 8-man this coming season.

Ontonagon returns some good talent and size, while E-TC will add Jacob Witt, who besides being a great basketball player, is a pretty good football player.

The 6-foot-7 Witt gained All-U.P. and all-state mention last season after catching 25 touchdown passes.

A lot of observers are going to argue that two Class D schools should be able to field an 11-man team. There is some validity in that argument.

The same argument was heard after Stephenson and Forest Park (last season) went to the smaller alignment.

Many people still believe Stephenson (160 students) could be playing 11-man football. The Trojans, on the other hand, are facing dwindling enrollment numbers in the very near future.

But last season, CFFP had a roster of 23 players, including an All-U.P. tailback in Dan Nocerini. There is little doubt they would have been more than competitive in 11-man.

It’s been said the number of eight-person teams in Michigan will nearly double this season. That will only add fuel on the ongoing debate about whether a school should play regular football.