Gielczyk: Johannesburg-Lewiston Rolls Into Postseason
Johannesburg-Lewiston’s football team has dominated its competition in going 9-0 in the regular season for the first time since 1998, outscoring its opponents 320-81 overall.
Only two games have been close, a 32-20 non-conference win over Manton in the opener and a 26-14 conquest of Tawas City in week five.
The Cardinals went 4-0 in the Northern Michigan Football League-Legacy Division to win its second consecutive league title. That hasn’t happened since they won three straight Ski Valley Conference titles from 1996-98.
Johannesburg-Lewiston lost in the Class DD state semifinals, 42-13 to Fulton in 1998 when the Cardinals ran the Wing-T on offense. They’ve never reached the state finals.
Naturally, excitement is running high with the Cardinals kicking off what it hopes will be a deep playoff run against Montabella on Friday night. It is their third straight playoff appearance. They have won two district titles.
But the players are keeping it in perspective.
“The kids are excited, but they know that’s done and over and it’s time to move on,” said Cardinals’ head coach Joe Smokevitch.
Smokevitch feels this season was a good learning experience in several ways. A few kids were injured during the year and others stepped up to take their place without the Cardinals missing a beat.
Matthew Davidson, a senior offensive and defensive lineman, broke his hand in the Tawas game.
The Cardinals didn’t have anyone left on the roster to play the tackle spots and Smokevitch had to pluck a player off the junior varsity team.
Johannesburg-Lewiston got Davidson back, but then was hit by the injury bug again when senior defensive end Ryne Bennett broke his leg in Frankfort.
Smokevitch had intended to give Davidson, who had played the week before with his mending covered in a protective club, but asked his parents to go back to the doctor for another club so he could play against Inland Lakes.
Bennett is the only player who is definitely out for Friday’s game at this time. He is scheduled to be available in another couple of weeks, if the Cardinals can keep winning.
Johannesburg-Lewiston trailed Tawas by 14 points and showed the resiliency to come back and win that game to keep its undefeated streak going.
The Cardinals grind it out on the ground led by junior fullback Sheldon Huff and senior halfback Logan Finnerty.
Both have rushed for about 1,200 yards apiece.
Huff tips the scales at about 195 pounds and uses that size to run through defenders rather than go around them.
Finnerty uses his speed to get to the outside, and is more of a finesse type runner. The two give the Cardinals a devastating one-two punch.
But neither would be successful without a strong offensive line making the holes for them to run through.
Johannesburg-Lewiston has four seniors starting on the offensive line in Bennett, Davidson, Garrett May and Dan Runyan along with junior Tom Runyan.
When things weren’t going so well early against Tawas’ defense, Smokevitch told his linemen that they need to communicate and figure it out.
Needless to say, they did.
They made the necessary adjustments and the Cardinals’ running game started to dominate again.
May is a three-year starter for the Cardinals, and was a First Team All-Conference selection last year. He takes the other kids under his wing.
With both of their quarterbacks graduating last year, the Cardinals brought up sophomore Preston Marlatt from the junior varsity to run the show this season.
The Cardinals don’t throw the ball much. In fact, they might not have thrown 30 times all told this year.
“People might say that’s kind of bad thing going into the playoffs, but we can throw the ball, we just haven’t had to,” Smokevitch said.
“(Marlatt) has made some throws this year that none of our quarterbacks in the past have ever made as far as reads and those kinds of things.
“He throws a nice deep ball. His primary targets have been Finnerty, Huff and (junior) Jason Richter at tight end.
They are big play guys for us.”
Defensive coordinator Cody Proctor instituted a new defense a couple of years ago, including some new tackling techniques patterned after rugby to help take away the potential for concussions.
“We’re just flying to the ball,” added Smokevitch. “We’re not very big on either side of the ball, but our defensive guys get the ball and gang tackle.”
Huff is one of the defensive leaders, approaching 100 tackles. On the back side, Finnerty has six or seven pass interceptions.
Getting past Manton in the opener was big since the Rangers have had the Cardinals’ number the last few years.
Charlevoix ran the ball down the Cardinals’ throats on its first drive of the game in week six after some missed tackles and other things.
But, the Cardinals shut them down after the first quarter.
The Cardinals were tied with Charlevoix for the division lead when they met on Oct. 11 in a monsoon.
Despite the inclement weather conditions the Cardinals did not commit a single turnover in a 37-18 victory.
Maintaining possession of the ball in the rain gives the Cardinals confidence that they can hang on to the football in bad weather.
“A lot of stuff has gone into the season, so it’s been a big learning experience,” Smokevitch said. “We’re looking forward to the next five games.
“We were watching the film on Montabella, and made the comment that there’s always a team that makes a run that was 5-4 on the year. I don’t want Montabella to be that school this year.
“The kids realize that they lose, and they’re done. That’s not the legacy they want to leave behind.”
Few people are giving the Cardinals a chance to advance further than the second round.
It’s given the Cardinals some extra motivation. They want to prove the doubters wrong and make a long playoff run.
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.