Gielczyk: Manistee County Had Plenty to Be Proud of in 2018
As the current year hurtles toward its inevitable end, and a new one prepares to burst onto the scene, this is typically the time when everyone reflects on what has transpired in the last 12 months.
In the sports world, much has happened, as it usually does. But there are some events which will stick in everyone’s mind, and be recalled years from now with a fondness occasionally bordering on the fanciful.
Some publications and other media outlets tend to rank the memorable events in a top 10 list, counting from the bottom up to the No. 1 sports story of the year.
What follows is not a list in a specific order, but simply a discussion of the best sports stories that occurred in the Manistee County area in 2018 which will remain in everyone’s collective memory going forward.
Putting the Onekama eight-man football team’s run to the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 2 state championship game at the top of this list seems only appropriate.
Although the Portagers fell short of attaining the pinnacle of their sport with a 30-18 loss to Rapid River at the Superior Dome in Marquette, it’s only right and just to celebrate their making it to the final.
Playing for the state title is the goal of every team, in every sport at the beginning of their season. Only a precious few are able to make it happen, and the Portagers got there with hard work and attention to detail.
Credit must go to head coach John Neph and his staff — assistants Jason Torrey, Justin Sedelmaier, Randy Techman and Ben Mauntler — for putting together successful game plans week in and week out, and being able to coax the very best from the players.
Running back and linebacker Ben Acton was a leader by example, and a load to bring down when he cradled the football. Portager fans rose to their feet every time Acton touched the ball, anticipating a big play which he frequently delivered. He was given an All-State honorable mention by the Associated Press.
With a 10-3 final record, the Portagers had the most successful season in their history. Onekama started its football program in 1964, and has had only three coaches in all that time. The Portagers have made the playoffs in the past, but this was their first trip to the finals.
The Portagers also enjoyed success on the basketball court, where the boys team won the district title in 2018, their first in 15 years, with a 47-45 nail-biter over Pentwater.
Manistee also had a historic football season, becoming the first Chippewas team in program history to win nine games, only the second to ever finish undefeated (9-0) and the first since 1961 to win an outright conference championship. That 1961 team was 8-0-1.
A year after finishing just 2-7, and three years removed from their last appearance in the MHSAA Division 5 playoffs, the Chippewas — Lakes 8 Conference champions with a 4-0 record — hosted a first round playoff game for the first time.
Senior quarterback Trevor Johns and senior running back Bryson Jensen formed a dynamic duo for the Chippewas, and triggered a high powered offense for head coach Troy Bytwork. Both received All-State honorable mention from the AP.
Their historic season was highlighted by wins over arch rival Ludington as well as perennial state power Muskegon Catholic Central in another first for the Chippewas.
In the winter sports, Bear Lake’s boys basketball team won the Western Michigan D League title for the first time in 10 years and finished 18-4 overall. But the Lakers lost in the district semifinals, 82-36 to Buckley.
Onekama’s boys basketball team didn’t bring home the hardware in the rugged Northwest Conference, but the Portagers claimed their first district title in 15 years with a nail-biting 47-45 triumph over Pentwater.
The Portagers saw a 13-point lead with 5:05 left in the fourth quarter all but disappear before finally clinching the win with some timely free throw shooting at the end.
Jacob Mauntler, who scored 16 points and hauled down 11 rebounds, and Jayden DeWitt contributed eight points and four assists. Both have graduated, and the Portagers also lost Jeremiah Torrey and Nick Falk off that team.
Bear Lake’s girls basketball team held off a furious late Brethren rally to take a 37-31 victory and captured the district title as Yuki Babinec scored 13 points and Hayley May added 10.
Laker coach Jeff Harthun allowed as how it was the best game Bear Lake had played on defense all year. He added that the Lakers got a little tired in the second half, but managed to weather the storm.
The Lakers lost in the regional semifinals and finished 12-11 overall.
Despite struggling with low numbers, and a new head coach for the third year in a row, the Manistee wrestling team managed to win a Division 3 team district title and have two individuals qualify for the state championships.
Isaac Reynolds and Bryson Jensen qualified for state as juniors, and were instrumental in the Chippewas’ run to the district title as they knocked off Lakes 8 Activities Conference rival Ludington, 48-28 and rallied to beat Benzie Central, 45-36.
Jensen wrestled down in weight against Ludington, taking the mat at 152 pounds rather than his normal 160 and recording a pin in 4:48 after leading 15-3.
Manistee voided three of its heaviest weight classes against Benzie Central, and trailed 24-18. The Chippewas took the lead, 39-36 entering Keaton Ensley’s match.
Ensley struggled early in the season, but came on strong near the end and stepped up big under pressure against the Huskies with a decisive pin in 5:17. He had an 8-1 lead before putting his opponent’s shoulder blades to the mat.
While it’s still early, and we haven’t crossed over into 2019 yet, based on the early returns it would appear the next year should hold more exciting moments to remember.
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 email@example.com for story ideas.