By RON DEUTER
IRON MOUNTAIN – Twenty-three years of tough luck and futility were erased during the final 18 minutes of a football game Friday night at Mountaineer Stadium.
The West Iron County Wykons, losers of 27 straight games against Iron Mountain dating back more than two decades, flat-out refused to accept the same fate for yet another season, rallying from a 17-point, second-half deficit to shock the Mountaineers 23-20.
“It’s not a monkey, it was a gorilla,” said West Iron coach Mike Berutti, winning against Iron Mountain for the first time in his 15-year run as the Wykons head coach.
“I’ve spent many a sleepless nights, but it’s not about me,” he added. “It’s about these kids and the guys that were down with them in the end zone after the game celebrating. Former players, at least 40 of them, guys that have laid it on the line and lived their life to win this football game only to come up short. It’s special for everybody involved.”
West Iron County trailed 20-3 when they got the ball back with 6:05 to play in the third quarter, and somehow found a way to rally. Shifty junior running back Alec Schmelebeck capped the miracle comeback by busting loose for a 46-yard up-the-gut rush into the endzone with 1:45 to play in the game.
“I don’t think the defense expected it,” Schmelebeck said. “It was perfect blocking, a wide open hole, and I was gone. Then all the people celebrating. I loved it. It was the greatest game of my life.”
After having their previous drive implode with a costly intentional grounding penalty, the Wykons burned all of their timeouts while forcing Iron Mountain into a three and out. Gaining the ball back at their own 25 with no timeouts and just 2:06 to play, Wykons quarterback Andrew Peterson – under heavy pressure – found Ryan Rogers on the right sideline for a 29-yard pick-up.
“Rodgers made a great play up the sideline to get it up to midfield,” Mountaineers coach Robin Marttila said.
The very next play, with just about everyone in the stadium thinking pass, went to 5-foot-8, 200-pound Schmelebeck.
“I figured they were going to think pass, and when they were doing that, they were dropping four guys back into coverage,” Berutti said. “I think he got hit at the line, but he’s got a low center of gravity, and he popped it. I didn’t think he had the wheels to get to the end zone, but he did.”
It was Schmelebeck’s second score of the half after he broke free on a similar play and spun his way into the endzone for a 21-yard tally to begin the Wykons’ rally late in the third quarter. Schmelebeck, after missing Week 2, chugged for 106 of his 136 yards in the second half.
“I told coach to give me the ball and I’d make it happen,” he said. “The line played great. I just read the blocks. It worked out perfect.
It’s the first time I’ve seen us play with real heart.”
In between Schmelebeck’s scores, the Wykons got another huge play when Brandon Olson fielded a punt at the 26-yard line and motored up field for a 74-yard touchdown early in the fourth to bring West Iron within three points.
Iron Mountain, forced to play the final frame without their top horse, James Christiansen, was held to 21 yards of offense in the fourth. Christiansen, who appeared to injure his leg on defense in the third quarter, left after running 24 times for 133 yards and one touchdown.
“He’s one of our better football players,” Marttila said. “To lose him put us in a bind, really hurt us on both sides of the ball. But our kids never gave up.”
Iron Mountain had two more possessions after West Iron County swiped the lead. The first lasted two plays before C.J. Qualley was picked off by Jake Polich. With IM using its timeouts, West Iron couldn’t quite run out the clock after the pick. But the Wykons buried the Mountaineers at their own two on a punt, leaving just 22 seconds on the clock. Qualley took one snap before being picked again, this time by Olson to end the game.
West Iron County’s first attempt at a game-winning drive reached midfield before Peterson was chased back by Iron Mountain’s pass rush. Peterson retreated some 20 yards before firing toward the sideline with no receiver in sight. The spot foul and resulting five-yard penalty and loss of down made it third and 35 from the 23. That’s when IM’s David Mielcarek snuck in behind Peterson for his second sack of the game, forcing a punt.
“We could have rolled over and quit right there but we didn’t, and that shows the heart of a lion,” Berutti said.
Peterson got even on the next play, tackling Qualley for a nine-yard loss to set the tone for what would be a quick three and out. Iron Mountain, unable to crack the Wykons’ pressure, punted back with a little more than two minutes to play. With West Iron kicker Rogers having connected on a 37-yarder earlier in the game, Berutti was playing for a field goal on the final drive, before Schmelebeck worked his magic.
“As the game went on, their size wore us down,” Marttila said. “They are a big physical football team. We just let one slip away and it hurts. But I’m proud of my kids, they fought hard.”
Iron Mountain was a model of efficiency in the first half. The Mountaineers put together two solid, clock-consuming drives. Brock Grenier capped the first one with a 38-yard scamper to give IM the game’s first points.
In the second quarter, the Mountaineers went 67 yards on 12 plays, Christiansen carrying the load and going in from eight yards out for the score.
“It’s crazy the way this game went,” Berutti said. “In the first half we couldn’t get the ball in our hands. Christiansen is tough as can be, and their line came off of the football on both sides of the ball, played outstanding. We weren’t in to it in the first half.
“I basically told the guys at the half that you just can’t just have potential, you have to live up to it. It helped with Christiansen going down, but we had some big plays. I’m really, really proud of these guys. I can’t say enough about the fight they have in them.”
West Iron County, off to face Ironwood next week, improves to 3-0 on the season. The Mountaineers slipped to 1-2 and play at Negaunee Friday.
“This is a hard loss,” Marttila said. “Our kids played hard, but we just came up a little short in the end. Give credit to coach Berutti and his staff. His kids never gave up.
“We had a great first half, obviously we were happy with where we were at. In the second, they got the momentum and they just rolled with it.”
West Iron County’s last win against Iron Mountain was in 1990. Iron Mountain had shut out the Wykons in each of the last three meetings.
West Iron County3 0 7 13 – 23
Iron Mountain7 6 7 0 – 20
IM – Brock Grenier 38 run (C.J. Qualley kick), 5:40.
WIC – Ryan Rogers 37 field goal, 0:59.
IM – James Christiansen 8 run (kick failed), 1:14.
IM – Christiansen 47 run (Qualley kick), 6:12.
WIC – Alec Schmelebeck 21 run (Rogers kick), 3:46.
WIC – Brandon Olson 74 punt return (Rogers kick), 11:42.
WIC – Schmelebeck 46 run (kick blocked), 1:45.
Total yards – WIC 283 (185 run, 98 pass); IM 250 (204 run, 46 pass).
Rushing leaders – WIC: Schmelebeck 14-36; IM: Christiansen 24-133, Grenier 5-50.
Receiving leaders – WIC: Rogers 3-75; IM: Jack Merrill 3-25.
Passing – WIC: Andrew Peterson 5-12-98-0-0; IM: Qualley 5-9-46-0-2.
Interceptions – WIC: Jake Polich, Olson; IM: None.
Sacks – WIC: none; IM: David Mielcarek (2).
First downs – WIC: 9; IM: 11.
Penalties – WIC: 4-30; IM: 2-6.