Gielczyk: Onekama Continuing to Build for the Future

As if losing 14 seniors off a team that finished 8-1 in the regular season and reached the MHSAA district finals to go 9-2 overall, wasn’t tough enough the Onekama Portagers’ football team was making its debut in the Northern Michigan Football League Leaders Division.

The naysayers, and they were a legion, came out and flatly stated to head coach Jim Hunter and his staff that they didn’t belong in a bigger league. They said the Portagers would be lucky to win two or three games.

But the Portagers never lost faith in themselves, or their coaches, and after some rough spots early on when they managed to start 2-0 despite having penalties nullify some big plays for touchdowns, they went 6-3 and qualified for the playoffs a third straight year.

It also marked the Portagers’ third consecutive winning season.

Veteran coach Jim Hunter, who completed his 28th season at the Portagers’ helm and 40th overall including stints at Alma and Manistique, felt that this year made the biggest statement of where the program is at, noting the start of YMCA Pop Warner football years ago as well as upgrading the middle school program.

Moving into a bigger conference with bigger schools, even if it wasn’t necessarily by choice, has only served to continue the process of building a more competitive program. The Portagers have strengthened their schedule by keeping Frankfort as a non-conference game.

Onekama was already playing a lot of the schools that are now its co-members in the NMFL Leaders, so it wasn’t that big of a change except that the Portagers wouldn’t see the small Manistee County schools which had gone to 8-man football.

"While I miss that rivalry, our program had expanded and gotten a little bit bigger with Pop Warner bringing in more kids, and we have more Bear Lake kids coming over," Hunter said. "Our kids had that Pop Warner experience, that middle school experience. We have a JV team and those other schools didn’t so it was hard to find those JV kids time (on the field).

"It gave us a really unfair advantage when we played them. Our kids had that much more experience, and it was reflected in some of the scores. It really wasn’t helping us. I think when we were all in the same boat, and struggling with numbers and trying to keep things afloat that was a different situation. So, that changed."

Naturally, it would have been easier to make the transition to the new conference with those 14 seniors. But that’s not how it worked out.

Despite it all, the Portagers handled it well. Better than many expected.

"Our kids have had a good background. They’ve had good coaching," said Hunter. "They’ve had good experiences. They’ve been successful moving through the different levels, and JV wise our kids had already played a tough schedule.

"We only had five seniors this year and one foreign exchange student who kicked for us, so he made six. But those five kids had played an awful lot of football so I felt like we’d have a shot at it, but we did have to replace a lot. But every one of them that had to step up, did."

Number one in that group was senior Austin Sovereign, who backed up Randy Pienta at quarterback and contributed at wide receiver. He stepped in at quarterback and ran the offense well, finishing with over 500 yards passing and made good decisions while doing a solid job in the defensive secondary.

Another was Tanner Hearit who dropped 30 pounds and contributed as a starter at guard on the offensive line and nose guard on defense. Joeb Reed (wide receiver/defensive back) and Trent Johnson (utility man), two students from Bear Lake who made major contributions.

Gabe Sidor, a first-year player last year who played sparingly at wide receiver, started in the offensive backfield this season as a running back. He complemented junior Jacob Mauntler, who finished with 1,000 yards rushing a year ago.

The Portagers even shunned taking a forfeit during the year when Suttons Bay canceled its season and instead scheduled a game with Elk Rapids, which struggled to a 2-7 finish but was a bigger school.

"It was a hard, physical game for us. We won, and I felt like we earned our way in (the playoffs)," Hunter said. "It wasn’t like we snuck in the back door with five wins and a forfeit, or that we were sitting on the bubble with five wins. We got the six wins that we needed, and I’m proud of these kids."

Hunter fully expects the Portagers football program to reach elite status, where they are competing for district championships with a shot at regional titles on an annual basis, and soon.

Maybe they’re not there yet, but they’re moving in that direction. The program is in place to make it happen.

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. 

Categories: Football