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June 25th, 2019
MARQUETTE, MI – 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.