D8 heavyweights collide
By BURT ANGELI
CRYSTAL FALLS – Old rivals Forest Park and North Dickinson clash Friday in a Division 8 football regional final at Dick Mettlach Field. Kick-off is 6 p.m.
The Trojans (11-0) of Coach Bill Santilli and Nordics (8-2) of Coach Joe Reddinger have been squaring off for 17 years including six times in the postseason.
So one may figure that preparation may be easier with the teams so familiar.
Not so, says Santilli with a smile.
“We know what they’re going to do,” Santilli said. “We know they’re going to be extremely proficient at what they do.
“We have to play assignment football and stop them when we’re on defense. Each year they stretch us to the limit.”
Forest Park must contend with a Nordic offense featuring four stellar backs and a pass-happy quarterback in Logan O’Neil. The senior has thrown 55 times, plenty for the Nordics, and completed 31 for 549 yards and six scores.
“Joe is throwing on second down and you never see him the throw the ball ever unless it was third down and 10, and then only if the trap wasn’t working,” said Santilli, remaining in good humor for the moment. “They’re not afraid to throw and O’Neil does a good enough job. They still run a lot of play-action that will bother us.”
Reddinger points out that the Trojans are also a slightly different breed on offense than the Forest Park teams of the past.
“They’ve been running a lot of different things out of the spread,” he said. “They’ve showed a new wishbone look. But defensively, they look as tough as ever.”
Matt Schultz (1141 yards-6.71 ave), Tim Hruska (785-9.69) and Derek Wagner (425-4.42) and Noah Berg (215-741) spearhead the Nordic ground game.
“They have four extremely talented backs,” Santilli said. “O’Neil gets to the edge at quarterback as good as any of the guys in the past.”
North Dickinson will have to contend with Lee Graff out of the Trojans backfield. Graff has run for 340 yards in the Trojans’ two playoff games. Reddinger thought L’Anse did a good job against the powerful runner last week.
“They played Forest Park really tough,” he said. “They played good solid defense. And they really kept Graff under control, or at least out of the end zone.”
Did the Nordics learn anything watching film of L’Anse holding Forest Park to a season-low 16 points?
“We sure did,” Reddinger said confidently, but without elaborating.
Forest Park isn’t looking forward to more helmet-knockers like the ones playoff foes Bessemer-Gogebic and L’Anse dished out. The Trojans survived both and expect another.
“What we’re struggling with is the size of our opponents and the physical nature of how those teams have played,” Santilli said. “Our team is feeling the effects of playing two strong teams.
“North Dickinson has that style where they come after you. (All-U.P. lineman Brad) Gustafson packs a load the way he plays.
“I don’t remember three physical games like this.”
In the first week of October, Forest Park thumped shorthanded North Dickinson 43-20. Graff ran for 144 yards and three scores while Jeff Johnson passed for 127 and one touchdown.
“Our first game around, most of what we did went our way that night,” said Santilli, noting the Nordics missed Hruska for that one. “I see that North Dickinson is playing with a lot of confidence having everybody back in the lineup.”
The Nordics are also energized by the return of All-Mid-Eastern Conference guard and linebacker Jonas Christian (hand). They are clicking at the right time, coming off a 34-13 win over North Central in which Schultz went off for 166 yards on the ground with two touchdowns while catching another.
“We should be a little stronger,” Reddinger said. “We’ve moved some people around. We played awfully good last week, probably our best game of the season.”
“Just from a confidence level, when your team has all of its players back in the lineup and you know the potential that you have, that goes a long way at the high school level,” Santilli said. “North Dickinson is a very fine team and formidable opponent. It’s tough to beat a team the second time around. We’ll have to be at our very best.”
Santilli’s Trojans have won five straight playoff meetings with Reddinger’s Nordics. The first test in 1999 went to North Dickinson.
Forest Park-North Dickinson winner will advance to the state semifinals and take on the winner of St Ignace La Salle (9-2)-Beal City (11-0).
NOTES: Field conditions, depending on the weather, may be iffy for Friday. Three of Forest Park’s last four games have been at home … Hurley, which lost to Forest Park 31-14 in September, faces unbeaten Shiocton in the Wisconsin Division 6 state semifinals. The Midgets rallied from a 19-8 halftime deficit to beat Webster 30-27 in the quarterfinals … Santilli would prefer his players not hunt on opening day of the firearm deer season. “I’d rather not have them go out but I know how important it is to a lot of kids,” said Santilli, hoping they wait until Saturday. “We’ll tell them to try to prioritize what is important to you. Get back inside with enough time to prepare for the game.”