PETOSKEY — This year has been all about overcoming adversity.
It has been the theme of 2020, especially if you’re a high school athlete.
So when the Petoskey football team opened play on Friday with a fumbled snap, that was soon scooped up and returned for a touchdown by rival Gaylord on the very first snap, there was no panic in the Northmen.
It was probably the worst possible way to start a game and season, being down 7-0 after one snap, though it was also another moment to show some resilience in the eyes of Petoskey players and coaches.
“We’ve talked to them all the time that football is going to have adversity and there’s going to be ups and downs,” Petoskey coach Gavin Fralick said. “Never in your wildest dreams do you expect it’s going to be a fumbled snap-touchdown on the first play of the game. But, we knew it was going to be a little sloppy without any prep time.”
The Northmen responded from that moment and then some against its rival, doing so with a season-opening 22-14 victory to retain possession of the Jaycees Traveling Trophy for a third-straight season.
A trophy game since 1978, Petoskey now leads the trophy series by a 24-19 advantage, along with the series since 1950 by a 32-21 advantage.
Both sides put together the typical ground-and-pound, methodical drives fans have become accustomed to over the years in Gaylord vs. Petoskey games.
The Northmen rushed for just under 200 yards, riding the strength of the offensive line along the way, while completing timely passes when needed.
Even bigger for Petoskey was perhaps winning the turnover battle, as they never put the ball on the ground after the opening fumbled snap and twice took the ball away from the Blue Devils. The first takeaway came on a Gavin Wargel interception for the Northmen, which was later followed by a recovered fumble on a kickoff.
Gaylord coach Shawn Sargent felt his guys had a bit of rust to shake off on both sides of the ball, which he hopes got knocked loose against the Northmen.
“As far as rust goes I think that’s to be expected. After the layoff and not having much summer activities to work on stuff, but they had the same thing. It’s the attention to the detail. That’s on us as coaches. We had some mishaps with details, so we need to lock that up.”
Petoskey scored on a 20-yard pass-and-catch from quarterback Patrick Leavy to fullback Rippin Vining, making it 7-6, then Gaylord came back with a short run by Quinn Schultz to make it 14-6.
The game went to halftime in a 14-14 tie, as Jarrin Kelly broke free on a kickoff for 45 yards to set up a seven-yard touchdown run by Vining. Leavy then found Kelly for the two-point play, which tied the game at 14-14.
The lone score in the second half followed a mishandled kickoff by the Blue Devils, which the Northmen recovered and scored off of on a four-yard touchdown run by Ian Piehl. He also added the two-point play.
Despite the loss, Sargent was also impressed with the resiliency he saw in his own group on the night.
“I was proud of how hard they played,” he said. “When the going got tough a few times for our defense they buckled down when Petoskey was inside our 30-yard line. I was really impressed with that. In the past, when we faced adversity we were kind of inconsistent on how we handled it. These guys did an excellent job, and I think that speaks to the leadership on the team.”
LEAVY STEPS IN
Petoskey turned to Leavy for the quarterback duties and the senior didn’t disappoint, completing his first five passes, to go along with the two-point conversion completion.
Leavy finished the game 5-of-8 for 53 yards and a touchdown. While he’s not likely to light up box scores this season, the Northmen offense will rely on keeping defenses honest.
“I think there’s a perception that we’re ground and pound and absolutely, that’s our identity, but we have to be able to throw it some too,” said Fralick. “For (Leavy’s) first start, I’m very happy with the decision making he had.”
HOLD THE LINES
The strength of Petoskey heading into the season focused on the offensive and defensive lines and neither side disappointed.
The Northmen churned out 185 yards on the ground and wore down Gaylord late, collecting 12 runs of at least five yards in the second half.
“Those guys get a lot of credit,” said Fralick on his line. “They were getting movement and we were able to rotate a few different running backs in there and they were all doing a nice job. But, it always starts up front. Whether it’s offensive line, defensive line, that’s where games are won and lost.”
Piehl led with 14 carries for 65 yards and the score, Vining had 16 rushes for 63 yards and two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving, while Kelly finished with eight rushes for 34 yards.
The defensive line also had key plays, with senior defensive end Bryce Beck hurrying Gaylord quarterback Corey Deer throughout much of the second half. Beck finished the game with four tackles and a sack.
“He did a great job,” said Fralick on Beck. “He was a little dinged-up, so we were hoping he would be able to go. That was definitely a boost having him out there.”
With the season once in question of even happening, the changes and challenges of playing through the COVID-19 pandemic were clear throughout the night.
Players on both teams wore specially made face shields on the lower portion of their facemask to comply with the mask rules and the crowd was kept to around 400 fans spaced out within the stands of Northmen Stadium.
Some fans gathered outside the stadium to watch through the fence and concessions within the stadium were also closed.
Referees were also not allowed to touch the football, but instead had to tell the center where to place the ball and the postgame handshake was replaced by a wave and salute from both sidelines.
So, perhaps a fumbled snap returned for a score on the very first play wasn’t so strange after all?
“I’m just proud of the mental toughness after the way the game started,” said Fralick. “To be able to weather that storm. You always look at a team and think, ‘OK, how are they going to respond when they get tested?’ That was about as big of a test as you can have. After one play you’re down 7-0 to start your season. So I was really proud of how we responded.”
The Northmen will next head to Big North Conference foe Traverse City Central on Friday, Sept. 25. The Trojans opened the first week with a 53-14 win over rival Traverse City West.
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