Lakes football completes very successful season
LAKE LINDEN — While their final game of the 2023 season was a 42-36 loss to Marion in the state semifinals, the Lake Linden-Hubbell Lakes had a tremendous run that closed with the Lakes going 5-1 in their final six games. The Lakes finished the season 8-4 overall, 6-2 in conference play.
Considering the fact that the Lakes opened the season 1-2, with losses to Inland Lakes and to Norway, a state semifinal finish might have seemed like a pipe dream after a 34-6 loss to the Knights on Sept. 9.
Of course, part of those early struggles were the level of competition the Lakes challenged themselves with.
“We struggled early on,” said coach Brett Gervais. “I think that we knew that we were going to have a really competitive schedule, and that’s what we wanted, because we knew we could compete at a pretty high level.
“So, when we had North Dickinson and Carney-Nadeau drop from our schedule, we were looking at two bye weeks right away. We had to make a decision on who we wanted to try to play. I had told our athletic director, Jack Kumpala, I said to try to pick the most competitive games we possibly can, and we’ll try to figure out the travel and all that after the fact.”
Kumpala went to work, and found opponents who could expose issues with the Lakes early on.
“He was able to find us games against Norway and Inland Lakes, which, if you look at it, when there was eight teams left in each division, those were two of the teams,” Gervais said. “So, it’s pretty impressive that we were able to find such competitive games. The first game of the year was Norway, and we were able to win, which was great. But then the second and third games were again inland Lakes and Norway, and we dropped both of those games. Looking back at it, I think it was kind of a catalyst to help us later in the year figure things out and understand how can we get better. Where are we going to have problems come playoff time? How can we counteract that?”
The loss to the Knights, coupled with the fact that the Lakes had beaten them to start the year, 54-34, was a transition point for team, one that proved to be an important springboard.
“I think that it gave us a good chance to look inward,” said Gervais. “It was kind of a gut check.”
After that loss, the Lakes bounced back with a win over Stephenson before heading into a huge midseason matchup with North Central, a team with a winning streak spanning seasons prior to Saturday, Sept. 30. The Lakes went into Powers and emerged with a season-defining 28-25 victory.
“I think that our last three games of the year, we had played North Central, and we were happy to get a win there,” Gervais said. “It was, obviously, a big momentum shift for us in terms of just getting a little bit more excited about what we’re capable of and understanding that they’re one of the top teams.”
However, life had a way of humbling the Lakes one more time, in a 36-28 loss to Crystal Falls Forest Park the following weekend.
“We ended up playing Crystal Falls, and we thought we’re playing at a really high level right now,” said Gervais. “We felt like these are now the Division 2 teams that we’re playing, the ones that we’re going to have to face in the playoffs, and we end up losing that game.
“It’s another chance for us to say, ‘OK, if we’re going to make any type of run, we have to beat either Crystal Falls or North Central,'” he said. “Both games were very close.”
From there, the Lakes defeated Ironwood, Gogebic and Ontonagon, setting the stage for a rematch with Forest Park in the opening round of the playoffs.
“I think that, by the time we hit the playoffs, we had that confidence back to be able to play at a pretty high level,” Gervais said. “It was cool just to kind of go up and down on that roller coaster ride all year, and then kind of be at the top at the right time, hit the ground running when playoff time came. We felt that North Central was kind of doing the same.”
The Lakes learned a lot from their previous meeting with the Trojans, and they took advantage of the fact that the Trojans had some injury issues as well, and they beat them to advance to face the Jets for the second time. This time, the Lakes beat them again.
“It came at a time where, I think, that they at least felt they were playing some of their best football,” said Gervais about the second meeting with North Central in the playoffs. “I think that without having Luke Gorzinski on their team this year, there was a little bit more of having to figure out what did they need to do to be successful. They still had amazing football players. They had kids that could just downright turn games around with their athleticism, and some kids on their offensive line that could control the line of scrimmage if you let them get a lead on you.”
Of course, playing the game at home on the grass at Ron Warner Athletic Field gave the Lakes a little something extra as well.
“We always love playing at home,” Gervais said. “It’s a different environment. It’s always a day game. Teams typically, I feel bad for them, but they have to wake up a lot earlier to make the bus trip up to the field here in Lake Linden.
“I just felt that our fans, our cheerleaders, having that on your side, it actually does make a difference. I felt that this year there was just a little bit more, I don’t know what the word is, just school spirit behind us, because they knew what we were capable of, and all the work that (our kids) put into it. I thought that having a home field advantage there was definitely beneficial.”
MARCOTTE AND ROBERTS
The duo of Danny Marcotte and Sam Roberts was a pivotal connection for Gervais’ team, especially in the first win over the Jets.
“There was a point in the third quarter in the regular season game where they (the Jets) were unstoppable, and things were turning quickly,” said Gervais, “up until Danny Marcotte and Sam Roberts made a big play in the fourth to kind of give us a lead and win the game, things were looking south.”
One of the key components of the Lakes’ season was a healthy Marcotte. In 2022, he went down with a severe leg injury in the Lakes’ first playoff game, and he missed significant time during the basketball season as he recovered. However, by the time football season came around this year, he was ready to go.
“It was pretty inspiring stuff, watching him get ready, and he knew all year that leg could get injured again,” Gervais said. “He carries the ball enough. He’s standing back there as a quarterback. He could get hurt again. So, it was really cool to see how invested he was in the season and then how that paid off.
“He’s, obviously, a very smart player. He’s an athletic kid. He can run the ball. He can pass.”
With Marcotte confident, and Roberts’ ability to find time and space, that key play turned things around.”
Gervais and his staff gave Marcotte the tools to be able to change plays depending on how he read the defense, and that opened up the opportunity for him to find Roberts with time and space to make the Jets pay.
“Danny is able to, in the moment, kind of slow things down and understand what to do in that situation,” said Gervais. “We practiced having an audible check at the line, and being able to call things off, kill a play, if that’s the case. There were moments during the season where Danny did that, and we were able to get some positive yardage out of it.
“It just so happened, when he made a check in one of the bigger games of the year, it panned out. That’s one of the bigger plays in Lake Linden-Hubbell football, watching Sam run down the field and score that touchdown.”
Marcotte and Roberts, both seniors, had three years together on the football field at the varsity level, and Gervais felt that made a difference.
“I think Danny and Sam working side-by-side together, in tandem, in the backfield, since they were basically sophomores, you really saw that maturation process of being able to slow the game down,” Gervais said. “You saw two seniors that were able to kind of be leaders.”
THE BEST POPKO PROBLEM
Another big piece of the Lakes’ season was the play of Gabe Popko. A natural tight end, Popko learned how to be effective no matter where Gervais and his staff put him.
“Gabe was such a good player last year,” said Gervais. “It was almost a struggle to figure out where does he belong to make the most impact, because with 8-man football, there’s obviously quite a bit of running room on the field. There can be open space in a hurry.
“So, starting him out at a tight end and a defensive end spot, we eventually kind of unlocked him and put him as a mover, as a fullback, and as a Mike linebacker, so that people couldn’t get to him right away. He was able to try to find the football on defense, and he was able to try to sniff out linebackers or get to whatever kick block he needed to make on a defensive end; on offense, as well as being able to run routes without being held up at the line. Players like him, they only come through programs like this once in a while. I would say that Gabe is one of the better tight ends we will probably ever see in Lake Linden.”
Receiver Matthew Jokela had a day to remember against the Jets in the playoffs. Not only did he score multiple touchdowns through the air, he managed to get on the board in other ways.
“After the playoff game against North Central, somebody had asked me about No. 22, and what he had done all day,” Gervais said. “I didn’t even realize how big of a game he really had. When I sat down later to look at the stats, I was just amazed, because not only did he have an interception, but he kicked a field goal, he had a couple of receiving touchdowns, he returned a kickoff back for a touchdown. It’s stuff that you can’t really teach.”
THE GROWTH OF HOLZBERGER
While there were several players that Gervais was proud of for finding ways to make an impact on the lineup, including youngsters Josh Daavettila, Danny Mikus, and Nate St. Onge, one other player who had a huge impact in the playoff run was lineman Mason Holzberger.
While he did not get to put the kinds of numbers that Marcotte, Roberts, and Popko did, Holzberger found a way to impact every game he was a part of.
“He was a guy that he really didn’t get that much recognition in terms of like postseason awards or even during the games,” said Gervais. “You’re not really seeing offensively who he’s blocking or what might be happening in the trenches, but I would say he’s one of the smartest players in terms of X’s and O’s that we’ve had here in quite a long time. He’s a guy that when you tell him something, it’s almost like he already knew.
“As soon as he did something wrong and you tried to correct him, he instantaneously knew what mistake he may have made, or even what somebody next to him did wrong, and he would be able to fix that.”