Gielczyk: Gaylord St. Mary Rolling in 1st 8-Player Season
Six straight wins, and four real games.
Gaylord St. Mary recorded two blow out victories (82-6 over Manistee Catholic in the season opener, and 85-8 over Central Lake in week two) and was awarded two forfeit wins (Bellaire and Fife Lake Forest Area).
In the two real tests the Snowbirds topped Central Lake, 48-32 in week two and last Saturday night survived a wild slugfest with previously undefeated Suttons Bay, 48-47.
The Snowbirds record has them ranked No. 5 by the Associated Press in 8-player football, a year removed from a 2-6 finish in their final season in the 11-player game.
Last week’s game resembled a pair of heavyweight boxers battling it out for supremacy, each taking punishing blows to the body and coming back to send the opponent into the ropes with a shot of its own.
St. Mary applied the first punch to the stomach, mounting a 14-0 lead on the Norsemen (5-1) when Logan Murrell raced 34 yards for a touchdown and Chris Koscielniak went in from four yards out.
But the Norsemen rallied, counter punching with three touchdowns of their own to climb into a 21-21 tie with the Snowbirds at the half. The game went back-and-forth the rest of the way, until the Snowbirds applied the knockout blow when Brady Hunter connected with Logan Murrell on a nine-yard touchdown pass, and then Hunter snuffed out the last Suttons Bay gasp with a pass interception late in the fourth quarter.
“I think team camaraderie has been the key for us,” said St. Mary coach Kevin O’Connell. “Our locker room is intact. There is an extreme sense of brotherhood and accountability.
“We have very coachable, disciplined and tough kids. They make coaching very easy, to be honest with you. You’re a good coach when you have great kids.”
The Snowbirds struggled last year, and decided to switch to eight-player after the fifth week of the season.
O’Connell says the Snowbirds have a tight senior group, and a solid junior class to complement them.
“It’s fun on Friday or Saturday nights to coach against very good athletes, well coached and well disciplined,” O’Connell said. “Our kids love competition, and they certainly got some Saturday night.
“We’d probably still be playing if it weren’t for a few extra points, or going for two and decisions like that. They’re a very good ball club, and we’re very happy that we beat them. They have some very good weapons.”
Everything begins up front, and the Snowbirds starting offensive linemen have been doing a stellar job of making the offense go by opening the holes for the running backs.
They include center Tyler Bowerman, Colton Inglis, Alex Pudvan and Domenico Rosser.
“We want to establish the run,” O’Connell added. “We run the option. We run a little off tackle, and a little play action. But, we want to grind it out, and be physical, and take time off the clock.
“In northern Michigan, you can air it out, but weather will dictate to you really quickly whether you can air it out or not. Until you establish a run game, the stuff in the air just doesn’t work.
“Especially weeks eight, nine, 10 and 11 weather is not conducive to an open spread game. I think we have to establish the run, and then we can spread it out and put our athletes in space. We can throw the ball around a little bit as well.”
The Snowbirds don’t do anything fancy on offense. They keep it simple. They are double tight, split back and run the option. They can go to an empty set, double trip motion and a lot of other things.
O’Connell says that the Snowbirds are fortunate to have smart kids who can make the necessary adjustments.
Defensively, the Snowbirds kind of live and die by the sword.
“We’re a man team, we like to blitz and we like to bring pressure,” said O’Connell. “We like to attack. We’re not a sit and read team. That’s just not the mentality of our kids.
“We have kids who like to get after it. They like to attack. And when you bring pressure, sometimes you get bit. Saturday night, we got bit a few times. Our pressures didn’t match up with our coverages, and we got burned.
“Sometimes we over pressured and gave them seams. That happens. As the defensive coordinator, I have to understand that. It’s frustrating, but if that’s the style of ball we’re going to play, those are the risks.”
O’Connell said everything starts with Mike linebacker, Chris Koscielniak. All the checks, all the blitzes and all the coverages go through him. He’s a good leader, despite being a naturally quiet kid.
All three of the remaining teams on the Snowbirds’ schedule have winning records.
“We’re happy with where we’re at,” O’Connell said. “But, we have so much work to do to get better because we know the competition will be very good from here on out.
“Our kids aren’t hanging any banners yet by any means. They are a humble, hard working group of kids.”
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.