MARQUETTE, M i. Day 1 of the All-Star week is in the books. What a day! All of the players checked in and each team completed two practices. Both teams got to practice once in the Dome, and for many, it was the first time being in the Dome and playing on the turf. The coaches talked early and often about making the most of their opportunities and taking advantage of the time here to make new friends.
However, even with football in the front of everyone’s mind again, the highlight of the day was the food drive which benefitted the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry. Over 1500 pounds of food was collected and donated by the players, which was greatly appreciated by everyone at St. Vincent’s. It is a testament to how well supported these players are in their communities.
Organized locally, members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, witness God’s love by embracing all works of charity and justice. The Society collaborates with other people of good will in relieving need and addressing its causes, making no distinction in those served. Friends in need may receive assistance with food, shelter, utilities, rent, material needs, prescriptions, transportation and other forms of charity. The stores are successful due to the generosity of community members who donate. The U.P. Football All-Star Game is very pleased to be a part of the community helping others in need.
Upon arriving, the players did not have much chance to relax. After getting settled into their rooms and having a quick lunch, there was a brief team meeting with all players and coaches. Once the general expectations were given, the group split up and each team began their practices.
Team Black head coach Scott Syrjala, from Westwood, brought Brad Wiljanen, Chad Hewitt, Jake Wolf and Scott Mann from his staff to assist. Syrjala has coached five times previously in the All-Star Game. The other Black Team coaches are all from the Ishpeming staff. Jeff Olson, head coach at Ishpeming (who just announced his retirement from Ishpeming), also brought George Niemi and Kyle Rundman. Niemi was just named Olson’s successor as the new Ishpeming Head Coach, so this All-Star Game serves as a passing of the torch to the new staff at Ishpeming. Olson has coached in the All-Star Game seven times, and led Ishpeming to multiple state championships. Syrjala and Olson coached together for many years at Ishpeming, so the Black Team is a very cohesive group already, and are all very comfortable with each other.
Team Red head coach Cody Kangas, assistant coach at Manistique, has some unique perspectives regarding the All-Star Game. Cody played in the first All-Star Game in 2008, and has been gaining coaching experience at several schools since. He is the first player to come back and be a head coach in the All-Star Game. Cody brought with him his father, Todd Kangas, who is the head coach at Manistique, where Cody played in high school. Garde Kangas, Cody’s brother, is coaching at Pickford, who recently made the state championship game this past season. Their brother Tyler Kangas also joins them on the coaching staff, so all three Kangas boys and their dad are coaching together. Rounding out the staff for the Red Team is Paul Jacobson from Negaunee, who helped win a state championship for the Miners during his tenure. Jacobson has coached four times in the All-Star Game. Mike Christian, North Dickinson, has coached in the All-Star Game five times, amd Mike Berutti, West Iron County, is back for his second year in a row. The Red Team definitely has the advantage in experience at the All-Star Game, so we will see how that plays out throughout the week.
The first practice is always about getting the players into the positions where they can benefit the team best. The All-Star Game provides many opportunities for players to get experience in different positions they have not tried before. With the small size of most U.P. high school rosters, the best players often play positions where they are needed most, and do not get a chance to experience other positions they might be more suited to play. With so many great players all on the same team, the coaches are able to move players around to accentuate their strengths, so it is fun to watch the players thrive at multiple positions.
Both teams spent time evaluating the talents of each player as they worked through the drills and formations. The players started to immediately develop some chemistry with each repetition and play. It was easy to see why these players were selected as the best in the U.P., because it did not take them long to settle in to a practice routine and begin looking like a football team. Both teams spent time in their individual position groups, as well as scrimmaging offense vs defense as an entire unit. Spirits were definitely soaring when the groups came together and guys got a chance to finally hit each other, after so many months out of pads.
It is hard to tell at this point which team has an advantage. Both teams are working hard to figure out their personnel and where each player can help the team in the best way. We will have to see how the week progresses, but both teams look to be very focused on their own game plans. Each team has players with unique strengths, and the coaches are developing ways to get the most out of every player and create the most advantageous match-ups.
The biggest impact on the draft, the game plan, and the overall atmosphere of the game is definitely the addition of “motion” to the offense. Allowing an offensive player to go in motion will certainly open up the game, and make it significantly more difficult for the defense. We should see much more creative play-calling, and scoring, in this year’s game on Saturday.
Day 2 (Tuesday) will see everyone settle in to a regular routine of two practices, along with Media Day in the evening. Team and individual pictures will be taken and players will be available for interviews to any attending media. Players and coaches will be available for interviews at 6:45PM at the Dome.
Day 2 of the U.P. Football All-Star week has concluded. The second day for both teams saw them settling in to their practice routines. Practice was held once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Both teams solidified their personnel and began to implement their game plans. Some players changed positions, based on the needs of the team, and how their talents might best be utilized. The offenses worked on different packages that would fit best with their individual talent. The defenses began developing plans for stopping the different offensive sets. Each practice saw the teams creating better chemistry and improved execution of their plays. Overall, at the end of day 2, these 80+ players from throughout the U.P. looked like two teams who are practicing for a game on Saturday, not a group of individuals thrown together just one day ago.
The biggest change to this year’s game is the addition of “motion” to the offense. Any eligible offensive player can go in motion, which means there is now a huge increase in the amount of plays which can be run, and every offensive player becomes a threat to score. It also creates issues for the defense on how they will cover all of the players who may score. The offensive coaches have been busy creating new plays to confuse the defense, and the defense is trying to keep up. At this point in the week, it certainly appears that there will be more scoring from both teams on Saturday, which makes for a much more exciting experience for the fans, and players.
Tuesday evening was Media Day at the Dome and there was much excitement in the air. Players were interviewed and team and individual pictures were taken. Media on hand included TV, radio and newspapers, all eager to get the players’ perspectives on the game. It was nice for the media to have access to all the players from throughout the U.P., not just their own local players. The players are getting much better at speaking to the media and answering questions regarding what their perspectives are on the week’s activities. Getting players out of their comfort zones and accepting new challenges is definitely an emphasis for the week, so it is good to see the players accepting these new roles on and off the field.
Wednesday afternoon will see the players performing the Skills Challenges. Players will compete in the Fastest Man, Strongest Man, Quarterback and Receiver Challenge, as well as Punting and Kicking. This friendly competition will lighten the mood for the players, who have been intently focused on their preparation for the game. The players can relax for a while and enjoy the atmosphere. The Skills Challenge is open to the public and begins at 2:15 PM in the Dome.
While the players are testing their physical skills, the coaches have the afternoon off. Spending some time away from the players will allow them to clear their minds as well, and get refocused on the remainder of the week. They too have been working hard to come up with the proper game plan that will utilize all the strengths of their players and give them the best advantage on Saturday, so some down time is exactly what they need.
Upcoming Events: Thursday afternoon will be the trip to Bay Cliff and Friday is the All-Star Banquet.