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Lakes football teammates excited for next chapter

Lake Linden-Hubbell back Gabe Popko sheds a North Central defender during a game Friday in Powers, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Megan Gervais)

LAKE LINDEN — In early February, the Michigan Tech Huskies football team announced 32 new faces joining the program. Among those included in the lengthy list were a pair of Copper Country area teammates in Sam Roberts and Gabe Popko of the Lake Linden-Hubbell Lakes.

The two 6-foot-2 athletes will have different roles as part of the Huskies, but they are both excited about entering the next stage of their careers side-by-side.

“It’s great,” said Popko. “I have a friend that I can on with. I know I’m not really alone. It’s just really exciting. I love playing with him my whole high school career. It’s just great.”

Roberts agrees with his friend and teammate.

“I was actually pretty relieved,” he said. “Gabe texted me and he was like, ‘I just committed,’ and I was so excited. I was worried going in, because it’s new and everything’s different. It’s nice to have a friendly face I can always go to, and talk to, and be with and stuff. So, it’s actually really nice. I’m really glad that Gabe decided to also commit.”

Roberts and Popko have both been a big part of the transition for the Lakes from 11-man to 8-person football in recent years. Their high school coach, Brett Gervais, praised both of them, not just for their impressive statistics, but also for the things they brought off the field as well.

“I think that them coming from a class that had high expectations, since they were basically freshmen, for pretty much all the sports that they were involved in, I thought that both of those guys did a really nice job of working hard, not even just in the weight room, but extra time in the gym or on the ice,” Gervais said, “and with our leadership program that we have in Lake Linden, just putting in extra time to be role models for the younger guys. I think that, ultimately, them being signed by Tech is a sign that a lot of it kind of paid off.”

Gervais, a former Michigan Tech football player, is also excited to see the two of them enter college together, since they have done so much together to get to this point.

“I think it’s meaningful they’re not going into the experience alone,” he said. “I guess they’re going to be able to bounce ideas off of each other, and kind of have somebody to lean on if they are having a tough day. It’s not easy going playing college anything athletically, especially at Michigan Tech, where it’s a pretty high standard academically.

“I think they’re going for engineering. I think both of them are. That’s not an easy thing to do while you’re trying to balance succeeding in a sport. So, I think it’d be really nice.”

In fact, Roberts is going to study mechanical engineering, or possibly, civil, he said, while Popko is starting in engineering, and looking forward to figuring out where he wants to focus his attention once he gets a taste.

Michigan Tech head coach Dan Mettlach is excited to be bringing both Popko and Roberts in.

“Obviously, both great kids, socially fit what Michigan tech is,” said Mettlach. “I know they’re only 15 minutes away, but (they) fit us in every sense of the word. Obviously, playing for Coach Gervais, who is from our locker room, helps that. I think they were in a program that developed them the right way, but they fit us academically. As a matter of fact, I don’t want to speculate, but I would imagine that they wanted this type of education, whether they came to Tech or not.”

Mettlach has no doubt that both will have their opportunity to have an impact on the football program, as well as in the classroom, even if he is not sure, at this point, exactly what position they will each play. However, he does believe that has a more clear picture of what that will be for Popko.

“They’re capable of playing in this league,” Mettlach said. “What positions those are at right now, we’re not sure. We’ll bring Gabe in as a tight end, and I think that’s where he is going to succeed at here. Sammy’s capable of playing multiple positions, so we’ll figure that out.”

Given that both players were asked to take on multiple roles with the Lakes, both offensively and defensively, gives their new coaching staff options, which excites Mettlach.

“Any time you can bring in two athletes that are capable of playing multiple positions,” he said, “obviously, that helps us out.”

It is not always easy to find the right player or the right fit when recruiting for college, especially, as Mettlach mentions, at the Division II level. So, when a recruiter can find a player like Roberts or Popko, they can become a priority because of their comfort with playing positions that aren’t their natural ones from high school.

“You try to project, a lot of times, when you’re recruiting,” said Mettlach. “If you can go get guys that in their high school (that) fit what you wanted to do in your system when you get here, that’s ideal. At the Division II level, we don’t always have, especially here, that capability where we can just go pluck guys and put them into our offense, defense, or special teams.

“So, there’s many guys that we are trying to project. They might have played tailback in high school, but can they play outside linebacker here? Or, maybe they played linebacker in high school. Can we bulk them up and make them play (defensive) line here? So, you take those two guys in particular and watch their highlight films, or go watch them live in person. Gabe goes from playing tight end to defensive end to linebacker. He’s standing up. Sammy’s playing linebacker, tailback, he’s playing nose tackle at times. At all those spots that those guys are playing, they’re making plays. So, that makes us think that wherever it might be down the road, they’re going to help us out somewhere.”

Both players, according to Gervais, understand the value of hard work, which is why they both had a ton of success in the 8-person game in high school.

“I think the biggest thing is that there was a little bit of a payoff to all the hard work that they put in,” Gervais said. “You always want to be able to compete at a high level. You want to get better and better throughout your years developing in high school. At the end, you really want to be able to say, ‘Hey, we achieved something pretty great.’

“Even that entire senior class, they all just did a nice job of making sure that, at the end, there was a little bit of success to back up all the hard work they really put in, all the time that they dedicated to the program. Even (both of them) just being role models for the younger guys, so that continues on down the line.”

For Gervais, knowing that Michigan Tech is going to continue to keep an eye on what he is building at his school is exciting as well.

“I think that having Michigan Tech kind of in our backyard at Lake Linden, it always gives a guy an opportunity to at least try to play at the next level,” he said. “There’s not a ton of exposure to college sports up here. It’s not like we’re heavily saturated with it. So, I’ve always seen it as a really big compliment to be scouted by Michigan Tech and given a chance to play.”

As a high school coach, who also played college football for the Huskies, Gervais feels like he is in a great position to help young players consider what their future holds if they are considering a school and a program like Michigan Tech.

“The stage is pretty competitive, and it’s a pretty high level of play in the GLIAC,” he said. “So, whenever we get any guys looked at, I try to tell them not to take it for granted, and to work their tails off once they get that opportunity.”

THE SCOOP ON POPKO

For Popko, it was Michigan Tech or bust. He knew where he wanted to go to college, and it was just 15 minutes down the road from where he grew up.

“It’s super close to home,” he said. “The education is great, and I’ve always just wanted to go there since a little kid. It was always the school that was on my radar. So really, (it was) the only school I ever applied to, really the only school I had in mind.”

While the engineering was a big draw for Popko, there was another factor that tug at him even harder, he has had family go there.

When he found out that Michigan Tech wanted him as much as he wanted to be there, he was ecstatic.

“It makes me feel great, because I just always wanted to go there,” he said. “It’s just a huge accomplishment.”

Gervais believes that Popko will be able to find success at Michigan Tech because of the type of kid he is. He helped Lake Linden rush for 2,300 years this season. He also was a top receiver, making 14 catches for 238 yards and five touchdowns in a game that is not really geared towards passing, in general.

“He’s a quiet kid, and he’s just one of those guys that can put his head down and go to work, and there’s no pushback with any coaching,” said Gervais. “He does what he’s told, and like I said, he’s the guy where you think everybody’s done for the day, and then Gabe’s in the gym shooting, or he’s down in the weight room, putting in extra reps. He’s a guy that he really does have the motor to try to be good. That’s something that you really can’t teach, trying to do the extra stuff just kind of on your own, even when you’re not asked to do it.”

THE SCOOP ON ROBERTS

Roberts’ father works at Michigan Tech, but even with that family connection, like Popko, it was always his first choice. Getting to play football there is a happy bonus.

“I’m really excited,” he said. “It’s, like, overwhelming that I got accepted there. It’s always kind of been like, ‘I’m going to Michigan Tech,’ you know, but it really hit once I got the acceptance letter. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually like, I can go there.'”

For Roberts, whose older brother also went to Michigan Tech, one of the biggest deciding factors is the inclusivity of the campus.

“They really include everyone, which is really nice,” he said. “There’s a sense of community there that I really like. Obviously, it is close to home, that is a big factor. The schooling, they’re one of the top engineering schools in the nation, which is really nice. So, that’s obviously a plus. But, they really made me feel included, even when I wasn’t even going yet. They really kind of brought me in.”

Roberts rushed 126 times this season for 904 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also spent time as a tight end, where he made 11 catches for 219 yards and three touchdowns. Gervais feels that he was perhaps toughest on him, but he knew that Roberts could handle the pressure, and succeed because of it.

“Sam’s just coachable,” Gervais said. “Sam, he listens. Sam was a guy that I was always really hard on. I was tough on him on purpose, because I knew that he could handle it. I knew that he had a really high ceiling. and we needed to get him there. Especially understanding that he was going to be carrying the ball quite a bit in our run-heavy, offense, same as Gabe.

“He did a nice job at putting in extra work and just being for the Lake Linden-Hubbell program. He was kind of everything that you want to see in a guy that is willing to put the work in, and stand for all the things that our program stands for.”

GOOD GUYS FOR THE LOCKER ROOM

Mettlach feels that both Popko and Roberts are great additions to the program, not just for what they can accomplish on the field, but also in the locker room.

“I’ve known Sam and his family a little bit longer, with his father’s role here, and being a former football alum, as you know,” said Mettlach. “Getting to know Gabe this last year as well, the one thing that we have going for us at many of the U.P. schools, but especially at Lake Linden, is the connection with Coach Gervais. Coach Crouch is over there still. So, everybody that we’re hearing from is all positive things about these guys, how they act in the building, what they’re like in the town, obviously in the locker room. All the responses we got from everybody have been incredible.”

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