Gielczyk: Marion Makes History as Program Continues to Grow
Leading the Manistee Catholic Central/Mason County Eastern co-op football team by 22 points, 28-6, early in the second half of last Friday night’s West Michigan D League game in Manistee, Marion seemed to be on the verge of another blowout victory.
That has been a common theme for the Eagles this season. After dropping their opener, 30-6 to a now highly ranked and undefeated Onekama team, the Eagles have won six straight and the fewest points they’ve scored came in a 26-16 win over Mesick.
Following the Onekama loss, the Eagles ran all over Big Rapids Crossroads Academy, 76-0, beat Bear Lake, 48-6, and overwhelmed Baldwin, 64-0 on the heels of the Mesick game before they edged the Sabers, 62-54 last Friday.
But Friday’s game didn’t shape up as a tight one, until the Sabers — who were celebrating their homecoming and in need of a big victory to keep their fading playoff hopes alive — decided the party wasn’t over yet.
Marion twice led by 22 points, the last at 34-12 in the third quarter, before the Sabers’ offense suddenly came alive and rallied to tie the score twice, first at 42-42 and the last at 48-48.
But the Eagles scored two touchdowns in the final 2:57 of regulation, including an interception return for a score and then a successful onside kick that enabled them to run out the clock in the remaining 47 seconds.
The Eagles won the WMD title outright with the win, their first undisputed league championship since they won the Highland Conference back in 1990, the same year they won the Class DD state title.
Marion shared the Highland title back in 1997, but had not won another until now.
Following a run of incredible success that stretched from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, the Eagles hit a rough patch, going 7-45 in their final six seasons in 11-player and even having to cancel their season three years ago.
And here they are, back on the football map with the playoffs almost a certainty at this point.
It’s helped that the Eagles returned several starters from last year, including senior Erick Carey, who was an Associated Press All-State Honorable Mention tailback and rushed for 1,823 yards with 25 touchdowns.
William Jenema, a three-way all-conference player last year on the offensive line, defensive line and punter as a sophomore, and another All-Conference pick, senior Christopher Wengert also came back.
“Those three guys have really stepped up and been valuable for us this year,” Marion head coach Chad Jenema said. “Billy has been very dominant on offense, and Erick has really run the ball well.
“Also, (junior) Charles Ankney has played very solid for us, both offensively and defensively. One thing that really helped us is we returned most of our team. I think we returned 13 out of 16 starting positions last year.
“Our whole offensive line came back as a unit. That’s really propelled us this year. The play of our offensive line as a unit has been outstanding. We just were fortunate to have a lot of people come back.”
Marion gave up more points last Friday than it had all season. They came in having allowed only 52 all season.
Coach Jenema was happy with the way his team responded, though.
“Right towards the end and they tied it up and things were going not so good for us,” the coach reflected. “I told them ‘Don’t argue. Focus, and do what we do,’ and we had a nice drive, went down and scored, had the nice interception.
“So, I was really happy with the way we responded. Most of our games have been blowouts this year, so for us to be in a really tough situation, our backs were against the wall, on the road, playing for a whole lot — we were — the resolve and resilience they showed was something we did not have a couple years ago in our program.
“It’s nice to see that the kids are maturing, learning how to win, and taking what we talk about in practice and actually showing it on the field. That was a nice moment for us. We made some mistakes, and fortunately we were able to overcome them.”
Marion just needs to learn from those mistakes, knowing that they’ll probably face adversity at one point or another in the playoffs.
The Eagles are 4-0 on the road, and have one trip remaining this Friday when they play at Portland St. Patrick in what promises to be a major test just ahead of the MHSAA 8-Player playoffs.
A win could give the Eagles, who have scored 274 points in seven games, home-field advantage in the playoffs, and that’s their next goal.
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. Gielczyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for story ideas.