Nov. 1—GAYLORD — Petoskey football players were rooting for something that hadn't ever happened to come about.
They got their wish.
After Petoskey lost 9-0 to Gaylord, the team wanted another shot this year at the Blue Devils. The only way that would happen was if they met in the playoffs, which had never occurred before in the long history of the two programs.
That changes Friday night at 7 p.m. as the Blue Devils (10-0) host Petoskey (6-4) for a Division 3 district championship.
"We've been thinking about it ever since it happened," Petoskey junior receiver Seth Marek said. "We've been crossing our fingers to see them again."
That wish was granted when both won playoff games last week and now face each other this Friday in Gaylord, the same location as the earlier meeting.
Gaylord and Petoskey have played consistently since both joined the Michigan Huron Shores Conference in 1968 and then the Big North Conference in 1997, yet never met up in the postseason before.
They've played 69 times, for 56 consecutive seasons and are only 35 miles apart, making it the shortest road trip of the season for each when they face off.
Petoskey reversed its regular-season decision against Marquette, winning 26-7 the second time around in last week's playoff opener after an initial 21-20 setback three weeks earlier. That has PHS hoping it can turn around a 9-0 loss to the Blue Devils back in Week Four.
"We thought we missed a couple opportunities that we usually make," second-year Petoskey head coach Jim Webb said of the first meeting. "You can't miss those kinds of things."
Both teams can look back at the Sept. 15 game and find things to turn around.
Gaylord was 0-for-9 on fourth-down conversions, lost a fumble and uncharacteristically missed two field goals. The Blue Devils defense did limit Petoskey to 104 yards yard of total offense, compared to 306 of their own.
"We didn't really do too well on offense last time," Gaylord senior tackle and co-captain Conner Calano said. "Hopefully, we tighten some things up. We missed a couple assignments on the line. We just have to clean up those run blocks and make holes for the running backs."
Petoskey threw three interceptions and averaged just over a yard a carry on the ground in that game.
"I'm looking for a little better game," Webb said. "It should be a good one. I'm sure they're favored, but that's OK. When we're playing well and things are clicking, we're a pretty good team."
Three of Joe McCarthy's seven interceptions this season came against Gaylord. He's thrown for 19 TDs and 1,839 yards, completing 65 percent of his throws. He holds every PHS passing record.
"Our quarterback has been doing well, and a couple receivers have been doing really well," Webb said of McCarthy. "(Seth Marek) is something. He runs nice routes and has great hands. He's what you hope for in a receiver. He and Joe have been on the same page the last two years."
Marek has 38 catches for 791 yards and 12 TDs this season — all Petoskey single-season records. He's also the school's career leader in those categories.
"It moves the ball around more," Marek said of the team going away from its single-wing past to a spread offense under Webb. "For me, I don't know what I'd be doing if we ran Wing-T."
The last meeting was a 3-0 game into the third quarter before a Russell Hush 57-yard TD run gave the Devils a little more breathing room.
Gaylord limited Marek to two catches for nine yards.
"The biggest thing is we have to click on game night," Marek said. "I know I didn't play my best game. We just have to put it all together."
Webb retired in 2014 after a 17-year run as Cadillac's head coach, becoming a Riddell sales representative that kept him close to the game.
"I had an itch," Webb said. "My son got hired here in Petoskey. It was a good time."
Jared Webb is Petoskey's offensive coordinator and a physical education teacher.
Both defenses are stingy, with Gaylord giving up only 127 points this season and Petoskey 133. Webb said one thing he insisted upon during his job interview was Gavin Fralick staying on as defensive coordinator.
Junior defensive end Korbin Sulitis (71 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, five sacks), junior middle linebacker Logan LaHaie (91 tackles, five for loss, two sacks) and junior defensive back Haden Janes (56 tackles, six interceptions) lead the Petoskey defense.
"They've got some really good defensive linemen and safeties that like to come up and hit," third-year Gaylord head coach D.J. Szymoniak said. "That gave us fits."
Still, Szymoniak said the Devils won't change much in their game plan.
"Everybody in the game knows we're going to run the ball," he said. "It'll be status quo."
Gaylord has run for 2,516 yards in 10 games this season, led by Ty Bensinger's 971 and Russell Hush's 711. Quarterback Caleb Aungst adds in 521 rush yards and 553 passing. Brady Pretzlaff leads the receiving corps with 17 catches for 281 yards and two TDs.
"We knew since our freshman year that our senior year was going to be great," Calano said. "There's been so many people who have bought in. We're not a very big town, but we can make some noise."
Petoskey ran for 1,524 yards and passed for 1,840 over 10 games.
The schools have plenty of common foes this year to look back on for comparisons. Each team played Marquette, Cadillac, Alpena, Sault Area and Bay City Western.
Gaylord comes off a 28-8 playoff win over Bay City Western, another team that prefers to almost exclusively run the ball. The Bay City Western game was a fairly low-scoring one, in part because both teams consumed chunks of the clock with long drives. Western had an eight-minute possession in the first quarter and Gaylord produced several seven-minute drives.
The Big North Conference champion Blue Devils come into the game pretty healthy for this time of the season. Szymoniak credits a big part of that to David Beyers' contributions to the strength and conditioning program. Gaylord added two yoga days into every week's schedule and bolstered its weight room in recent years, including three ice bath stations and massage guns at every workout station.
Last year's Gaylord team went 6-4 and lost three regular-season matchups by a combined 21 points, prior to a 36-0 playoff-opening setback against Mt. Pleasant, a team the Devils could face again next week if both win Friday.
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