Nov. 9—GAYLORD — The Gaylord Blue Devils have a shot to seize everything their football program has waited for since 2002.
"I was playing full back at Northwood University in 2002," Gaylord head coach DJ Szymoniak said, laughing when reminiscing about 2002.
Eminem echoed in his 2002 hit song, 'Lose Yourself' that one must seize the moment to get what they want, and the Gaylord football team is three games away from doing that.
Gaylord has been a wagon for football fans all over northern Michigan to flock over and watch. After Gaylord won their first Division 3 district championship game since 2002, senior linebacker Brady Pretzlaff stayed late to sign autographs for kids who traveled from Harbor Springs just to watch.
"It's happened a few times, but that means the world to me that little kids look up to me," the Minnesota commit said. "I remember being younger and looking up to big high school players, so to be able to do that for them ... that's the coolest thing to me."
No. 2-ranked Gaylord (11-0) also matched the 2002 win total when they defeated their Big North Conference rival Petoskey, 23-14, in the district title game.
The Blue Devils have an opportunity to make history Friday when they travel to Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central Stadium to take the third-ranked Rangers (10-1) in the Division 3 regional championship game.
A Blue Devils win in Grand Rapids would be the program's first regional title in school history and would surpass their 2002 season win total.
"We've all acknowledged how far we've come; but at the same time, we aren't trying to reflect too much because there are still goals we want to achieve this year," Pretzlaff said. "When it's all said and done this season, we'll be able to reflect on the growth that we've been able to do."
The Blue Devils have 13 seniors who have been through the ups and downs, and they're appreciative of what those down times have brought to them.
None of the players were alive in 2002 when the Blue Devils made their 11-0 run that ended in a loss to East Grand Rapids in the regional championship game.
Pretzlaff hasn't had a chance to think about the history that could be made Friday night, but he had a moment to think about the Gaylord faithful's love for Szymoniak's Friday night outfits.
Szymoniak's Friday night outfit has been a staple for the student section to emulate. His gameday outfit is a pair of MCRv Safety sunglasses and a hat.
"They gave out the sunglasses that coach DJ [Szymoniak] has worn before to some of the football players," Pretzlaff said laughing. "We were going to have a Coach DJ-themed student section, but we couldn't get enough glasses in time, so we had to cancel that."
Szymoniak's swagger has stayed the same, and so has the winning mentality of the football team. The Blue Devils have only gone up since Szymoniak took over the program in 2021. Gaylord finished the season 2-7 his first year and lost in the first round of districts in 2022.
"The main thing that has changed was going into the games with the mentality that we are going to win," Pretzlaff said. "When I first got here — as simple as that sounds — that wasn't always the case. Coach DJ has done a great job installing that mindset in us."
The Blue Devils' defense, which has held teams to an average of 12.8 points a game, has a tall task on Friday with a Ranger offense that has several players already committed to Division 1 schools.
Those players are senior wide receiver Ty Hudkins (Purdue) and wide receiver/safety Maxwell Richardson (Stanford).
"The biggest thing for us is to continue to do our jobs and do what we do that got us to this point," Szymoniak said.
Pretzlaff leads the team with 56.5 tackles and 2.5 sacks this season. Ty Bensinger sits right behind Pretzlaff with 49.5 tackles and three interceptions followed by Riley Hush (39.5 tackles and one interception) and Caleb Aungst (33.5 tackles and two interceptions).
"The work we've done in the offseason is coming to light now," Pretzlaff said. "I don't like talking about myself a ton, but I will say the whole defense and I have put in a lot of work this offseason. That's why the results are what they are."
The offense has complemented the defense by running the ball down their opponent's throat any chance they get. Szymoniak grew up rooting for the University of Michigan and hasn't missed the opportunity to show his offensive line how the players on the Wolverines approach the line.
"The biggest thing is that the boys understand why we run the plays we do, how to block it up, and who they have to account for and block. You see them talking all the time," Szymoniak said. "I've showed them clips of Michigan and how they get up to the line. They are pointing at who they have to go block."
The offensive line this season has helped the running backs rack up more than 2,800 yards on the ground on 454 rushing attempts. Bensinger leads the team with nearly 1,100 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Russell Hush and Riley Hush have a combined for 971 rushing yards and 15 TDs.
"We understand and game plan as to where the defense's weaknesses are," Szymoniak said about the run game. "We sit down every week to figure out what defense we are up against and explain the different positions on the field, the gap responsibilities they have and how we are trying to attack it."
The Blue Devils look to attack Forest Hills Central and leave with a regional championship trophy. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.