Prep football: With LaJoie as a decoy, Caya scores two early TDs in Negaunee win over Iron Mountain

NEGAUNEE – If he walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, he must be a duck.

Except when he’s really a decoy.

That was the main role on offense that Negaunee senior running back Tyler LaJoie served in the Miners’ crushing 36-8 victory over visiting Iron Mountain on Friday night.

LaJoie, an All-Upper Peninsula and All-Mid-Peninsula Conference player a season ago, didn’t have to be Negaunee’s workhorse, carrying the ball just seven times for 56 yards.

“I took some fakes and I could see a couple of their linebackers follow me,” LaJoie said. “That would open things up for whoever did have the ball.”

But LaJoie still played a major role in the game’s outcome, coming up with two big plays soon after the opening gun. Each set up senior teammate Austin Caya for touchdowns that gave Negaunee (4-0 overall, 2-0 Mid-Peninsula Conference) a 14-0 lead four minutes into the game.

First, LaJoie took the opening kickoff up the middle, cutting to the left sideline near midfield for a 72-yard return down to the IM 9-yard-line.

That set up Caya’s four-yard TD run two plays later, and with junior quarterback Ryan Syrjala’s two-point conversion pass to senior Tyler Windahl, the Miners led 8-0.

On the Mountaineers’ third play following the ensuing kickoff, IM senior QB Craig Qualley threw an accurate strike to one of his receivers on third down. But LaJoie stepped in front of the throw at the last second for an acrobatic interception.

“I was able to tip it with this hand,” he said, pointing to his extended left hand, “then bring it down with my other hand and tuck it against my helmet and shoulder pad.”

That put the ball on the Negaunee 35, and on the fourth play of the ensuing Miners’ possession, Caya sprinted through the Iron Mountain front line and untouched for a 48-yard TD.

The Mountaineers (1-3, 1-2) seemed rattled for the rest of the first half, losing a fumble one time and snapping the ball way over their punter’s head for a 28-yard loss another time. Each of those big plays set up Negaunee scores.

Later in the first half, LaJoie got a TD on a 4-yard run, senior teammate Tyler Jandron scored on a 33-yard pass from Syrjala and junior Zak Harsila scampered to paydirt from 7 yards out as Negaunee built its halftime lead to 36-0, enough to turn on a running clock after intermission.

The clock stayed that way until the game’s final five minutes, when IM finally got on the scoreboard when sophomore Justin Rock recovered Qualley’s fumble in the end zone following a misplayed snap.

“We were beaten by a better football team,” Mountaineers coach Robin Marttila said. “We got off to that slow start because of mistakes, and it snowballed from there.

“But I was happy we fought hard in the second half.”

Negaunee coach Paul Jacobson was pleased with his team’s play, but understood that IM was shorthanded, missing top running back James Christiansen and also losing Qualley by halftime to an injured leg or foot.

“I’ve been on the other end of it, playing shorthanded against Iron Mountain,” Jacobson said. “But I thought our team executed well tonight on both side of the ball.

“We were trying to do the basic things – execute well and play solid defense.”

Though IM actually ran 10 more offensive plays than Negaunee, the Miners held a 257-94 yardage advantage. Caya was the game’s leading rusher with 62 yards in just four carries, while Mountaineer junior David Mielcarek had 52 yards in 21 attempts.

Syrjala was an efficient 3 of 4 passing for 72 yards while Qualley, who attempted every IM pass, was just 1 of 3 for 11 yards with LaJoie’s interception.