By STEVE BROWNLEE
For The Daily News
ISHPEMING – It’s supposed to be easier to be the hunter than the hunted.
But some contradictory stories are coming from Ishpeming’s opponent in Saturday’s MHSAA Division 7 state championship game, Detroit Loyola.
While Ishpeming has earned the status of “hunted” after winning the matchup of these two teams, 20-14, at Ford Field in Detroit a year ago, the Bulldogs became the “hunters” with revenge foremost on their minds.
At least that’s how the tried-and-true story would go.
It sounds that way if you listen to a number of media reports, such as a long story in the Detroit Free Press written last week by Mick McCabe, who says that both Bulldogs players and coaches have spent nearly every one of the past 368 days – the game was a few days earlier on Nov. 24 last year – awaiting a rematch with these Hematites.
Loyola fifth-year head coach John Callahan begged to differ with some of that sentiment in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
“Our whole intention was to come back to the state championship game and finish what we started,” he said.
But he added: “Other than getting back to the game, it doesn’t matter who we play.”
While the revenge factor makes an interesting topic of discussion leading up to the game, it will probably fade into window dressing by the 10 a.m. game time on Saturday.
That’s because both coaches expect a competitive game similar to last year’s that wasn’t decided until Loyola’s last-gasp drive fell well short of the end zone.
Ishpeming coach Jeff Olson hasn’t taken getting this far for granted.
“It’s a surprise in some ways, because it’s so hard to get (here),” he said. “People told me that our side of the (D7) bracket was really tough, so it’s a huge accomplishment.
“These kids have been extremely focused all year, even with a number of running clocks. It’s a sign of their maturity – they’re great kids off the field, they help out in the community, they know right and wrong, and they don’t let little things slide.”
Two grind-it-out, rushing offenses combined for just 13 possessions in last year’s contest. This year, however, both teams have opened up their passing games a little bit more.
Ishpeming senior quarterback Alex Briones, just named an Associated Press Division 7-8 All-State first-teamer on Tuesday, put the ball in the air only seven times a game, mainly because he saw no significant action in the second half of 10 or 11 of Ishpeming’s 13 games so far this season.
Completing 58 of 92 passes, he’s found time to roll up 19 touchdowns and gain 1,451 yards through the air while not throwing an interception until the Hematites’ semifinal game last weekend against Harbor Beach at the Superior Dome.
His Loyola counterpart, senior Garrett Schaller, is a 6-foot-1, 185-pound transfer who Callahan said has numbers similar to Briones’ – he’s completed about 75 of 140 attempts for around 1,400 yards, 13 TDs and one pickoff.
Loyola’s top running back last year, big, bruising 218-pound Keymonn’e Gabriel, has graduated, so the Bulldogs have a pair of more-than-capable junior replacements who measure in around 5-10 and 175 pounds.
Marvin Campbell gained 1,500 yards this season and played last year against Ishpeming, while Mideyin Wilson added about 800 yards. Wilson missed last week’s semifinal game with an ankle injury but is expected back in the lineup on Saturday.
“They have a few good running backs, but Campbell concerns me most because he’s so fast and quick on his feet,” Olson said.
Two more faces – or more accurately, gigantic bodies – will be noticeably missing from the Loyola offensive and defensive lines this time around.
Malik McDowell, a 6-foot-7, 305-pound hulking giant, and Kajohn Armstrong, at 6-5, 275, are seniors but transferred to larger Detroit-area schools.