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Football: Positive virus test thwarts Copper Bowl

Hancock's Austin Salani (14) rushes as Houghton's Cade Holombo (8) attempts to tackle on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, in Houghton, Mich. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — As if this year’s COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t cause more upheaval and change in the lives of area high school students, it has.

This Friday’s Copper Bowl football game was canceled because of a positive test from a member of the Houghton football team.

For generations this annual gridiron battle has pitted the Houghton Gremlins against the Hancock Bulldogs. It’s an annual rivalry that packs the stands with colorful students decked out in their school colors hoping their team will take home the coveted Copper trophy. For Copper Country football fans, it’s as “October” as leaves falling off the trees.

Hancock leads the all-time Copper Bowl series, 42-23-2 (.646). The Bulldogs have outscored the Gremlins 1,328-835 in 67 games — an average of 19.8 points to 12.5.

“On Monday, after practice, I got the word about the positive test and had to call all the guys on the team and let them know what was going on,” said first-year Houghton head coach Micah Stipech. “To say the least this (year) has been a roller coaster ride.”

He added that while he had coached hockey before, this was his first time as a football coach. He took over the reigns in mid-March just when the COVID-19 shutdown began and not much was know how bad things were going to get.

“My coaching staff was teasing me recently. They said my first year here has been like (Army) Green Berets training where they drop you off in the middle of the woods and wish you good luck in getting out,” he said. “I liken it to the GPS in your car, I am constantly recalculating every day.”

With the positive test, just the football team will be at home in quarantine for 14 days. This will be the second time since school started that these players have been sent home due to the pandemic. At the end of September, all school districts in Houghton County canceled classes for two weeks due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the county.

“I cannot say enough about these kids,” Stipech said. “They are a hard-working, positive group who have come to embrace change. When I talked to each of them, not one of them complained. They just want to play football.”

Interestingly, Friday’s Copper Bowl would have been a rare second meeting in the same season between these two teams this year. On September 25, the Gremlins and Bulldogs played a last-minute game at Hancock. Both teams’ originally scheduled opponents canceled. However, more strangeness ensued as that game ended in a scoreless tie in the third quarter due to a storm front with lightening that moved in over Hancock that night.

“We’ve played two and three-fourths game and our record is 2-0-1,” Stipech said with a smile. “As well we have gotten in about five weeks of practice over the course of four months.”

He noted that while his players’ studies come first, he has dropped off footballs and blocking pads at players’ houses to stay up on their game. They are also having regular team meetings via Zoom.

On the other side of the Portage Canal, Hancock Bulldog’s head coach Ramon Sague echoed a similar story about his players.

“Our kids are doing well,” he said. “Obviously, they are disappointed but given the situation of this year they are not too shocked. We will have practice as usual this week and hopefully we can get a pick-up game for Friday.”

The Bulldogs are 1-3-1.

Stipech explained that when his team will be allowed to return to football activities on October 31, they will get on a bus and head to a field unknown for the first round of the playoffs. However, he is not worried about the “cold” restart.

“We want to rewrite history,” he said. “We want to be that team from Houghton that overcame obstacle after obstacle and won it all. We want future generations to remember the Gremlins of 2020 as a team of character — men who loved the game of football and just kept going no matter what life threw at them.”

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