By STEVE BROWNLEE
For The Daily News
DETROIT - Alex Briones watched the ball sail through the air to a spot in front of him at Ishpeming's 25-yard line on his team's side of the field.
Ishpeming celebrates after defeating Detroit Loyola 20-14 in the MHSAA Division 7 state football championship game Saturday.
As he put his arms out to block a Detroit Loyola player from reaching it, the ball bounced harmlessly to the ground.
That's when Briones began celebrating as the clock struck all zeroes and the scoreboard showed the Hematites with 20 points and their Bulldog opponents with just 14.
Ishpeming players came running from all over the field and the sidelines to mob Briones and celebrate their school's first state football championship in 33 years, this one in Division 7.
It was the Michigan High School Athletic Association title the Ishpeming players had prophetically announced as their goal back in the dog days of August, a time of heat, humidity and sorrow.
Weather was to blame for their physical misery at the time, while the July death of one of their own heroes from the 2010 state runner-up team cast a pallor that thoroughly permeated the initial preparations for this storybook season.
But it was also one of the reasons this team had the grit and determination to achieve its stated goal.
"This group of kids is like family to me," said Hematites head coach Jeff Olson, whose son Daniel was the teenager who nearly led Ishpeming to a state title two years earlier, then died due to suicide this past summer.
"They went through some tough times, and treated it like adults. This game wasn't about me or Daniel, it was all about them.
"They had a goal in the beginning of the season to get to Ford Field and win a championship.
"Of course, you have to have some things go your way, but they're the ones that made it go their way."
Briones agreed with all but one of those things his coach said.
"We were hungry, and we had an attitude that we don't take any prisoners," said the team's quarterback and one of its top defenders. "But really, we wanted this for coach and for his son."
Olson also said that while football is a great refuge to get away from the world's problems, he felt relief at winning his first state title in 21 years heading the Ishpeming program. The Hematites had won two previous championships, in 1975 and 1979.
"The emotions really hit me as the game ended," Olson said. "I didn't think they'd hit me that hard. (Olson's wife) Sally and I have had quite a year.
"But I felt that Daniel was especially close to us here."
Saturday's game teetered on the edge for Ishpeming, much like it did in 2010 when the Hematites lost to Hudson, 28-26, when a game-tying two-point conversion fell short in the game's final minute.
This time, however, Ishpeming forced its opponent to play catchup instead of having to come from behind as the clock wound down.
The Hematites vaunted defense proved to be up to the task twice in the game's final half-dozen minutes.
Ishpeming took its last lead on Saturday when senior running back Eric Kostreva scored his third touchdown barely a minute into the fourth quarter. Even with Briones' two-point conversion run, the Hematites' cushion of six points was vulnerable.
A Loyola TD would tie the game and if the Bulldogs were successful on the ensuing conversion try, Ishpeming could've been staring at its second two-point state championship game loss in three seasons.
And it was about to happen when the Bulldogs faked a punt from near midfield and their star running back, Keymonn'e Gabriel, ran for 38 yards to move the ball to the Hematites' 17-yard line with around eight minutes to go.
But that's when the Ishpeming defense stiffened. Loyola gained 9 yards on the next three plays to set up fourth down, and Briones was the first of several Hematites to meet Gabriel at the line of scrimmage and send him sprawling backwards for a 1-yard loss, returning the ball to the IHS offense.
While the Hematites had to eventually give it up, they salted away all but the final 74 seconds on the clock, and Loyola's seldom-used passing game wasn't up to the task of moving their team more than 70 yards in such a short amount of time.
"We got outplayed today ... and they took it to us," said Loyola coach John Callahan.
They did and the Hematites have a state championship to show for a season's worth of toil and effort.
(Steve Brownlee is with the Mining Journal)