By RON DEUTER
IRON RIVER - Now the real fun begins.
Jason Juno/Ironwood Daily Globe Photo
West Iron County’s Alec Schmelebeck stiff arms an Ironwood defender in a regular-season game. Schmelebeck was named the West PAC’s Offensive Player of the Year.
After posting the first undefeated regular season in school history, the West Iron County Wykons have their eyes on a much bigger prize.
The Wykons begin MHSAA Division 7 postseason play Friday night at home, hosting Traverse City St. Francis at 6 p.m.
The Wykons enter this matchup with a 9-0 record, a West PAC championship and several individual awards in tote. St. Francis got in on the bubble with a 5-4 record, even after dropping its season finale 42-0 to Muskegon Catholic Central.
But Wykons head coach Mike Berutti isn't about to let the Gladiators' record give his squad a sense of overconfidence.
"They're a good football team," he said. "Seven of the nine teams they played are in the playoffs. They've played some real good teams."
This postseason marks a return for the Gladiators. They missed last year after being a regular participant for more than two decades. In fact, St. Francis missing the playoffs last year ended a streak of 22 straight seasons in the playoffs, allowing North Dickinson to capture the state record by qualifying for a 23rd straight season this year.
St. Francis last played West Iron County in a 2008 regional game, and won 35-12 on the way to winning the Division 7 state title that season.
"They're not a typical 5-4 team," Berutti said.
In addition to the loss last week, the Gladiators dropped contests to New Lothrop (28-7), Boyne City (27-14) and Saginaw Nouvel (28-14). Wins came against Gaylord (21-7), Elk Rapids (36-20), Grayling (34-14), Charlevoix (49-7) and Maple City Glen Lake (28-21). Glen Lake and Grayling (Kingsford's first-round opponent in Division 5) were conference champions this season.
Berutti said the Gladiators are a team that likes to run the football.
"They've got some size and speed in the backfield," he said. "We're going to have our hands full, but we feel we are ready for them."
The Gladiators were held to 15 yards of offense in last week's loss. But in the win over Glen Lake's the previous week, St. Francis rushed for 364 yards. Joe Trucco led with 165, and Adam Armour added 100 more with two touchdowns. Daniel Gallagher also scored two times. Key to the victory was clock control, as St. Francis limited the Lakers to 28 plays and just 167 total yards.
"They've got big athletic kids on the line and everyone in their backfield is 190 pounds or bigger," Berutti said.
Berutti said assignment football is the key for the Wykons.
"Everyone has to do their job first, help second," he said. "We need to wrap up and pursue the football."
On offense, the Wykons will be up against MSU recruit Bryon Bullough, who mostly plays linebacker/defensive back. He is the third Bullough headed to the Spartans, as his brothers Max and Riley are currently on the Spartans roster. Bullough, who has also come out of the backfield on offense, missed two games this season for a violation of team rules.
"We have to get off the ball and move the ball," Berutti said. "Our backs have to protect the ball and run hard."
Berutti said he feels the Wykons will be able to move the ball.
"We've seen the type of defense they run," he said. "We have a few new wrinkles they haven't seen out of us. The key is going to be executing."
West Iron County is back in the postseason after a one-year absence. The Wykons have only missed the postseason three times since 1999.
"Everything going to be raised to a new level," Berutti said. "We have to understand, we can't take a play off. We have to be ready to go."
Division 7 is among the most challenging to get through in the state playoffs. The U.P. had four unbeaten teams in 11-man football this season and two (West Iron and Ishpeming) are playing in Division 7.
"This is a tough division, as strong as there is," Berutti said. "Up and down you see teams that are going to be contenders."