MHSAA football: Running game, defense propel Ishpeming to state title game for third time in four years

MARQUETTE – It was nothing fancy, just straight-ahead ball control combined with a stifling defense.

But it worked perfectly for the Ishpeming High School football team Saturday in a 44-10 romp over Harbor Beach in an MHSAA Division 7 semifinal game at the Superior Dome in Marquette.

“It was an overall team effort,” said senior quarterback Alex Briones, who ran for three touchdowns and intercepted a pass while playing defense.

Ishpeming (13-0) will now face Detroit Loyola (13-0), a 52-7 winner over Homer Saturday, at 10 a.m. this coming Saturday at Ford Field in Detroit for a shot at a second straight state championship.

“It’s a great reward for these kids, I’m proud of them,” Hematites head coach Jeff Olson said. “This is great for them, our school and our community.”

IHS beat Loyola 20-14 last season for the state crown.

Bobby Zhulkie added a pair of TD runs Saturday while a suffocating Hematite defense held the Pirates (11-2) – the defending Division 8 state titlists – to just 36 yards rushing.

“Our kids were extremely well prepared and played fantastic,” Olson said. “The kids got to the football. They were focused and assignment-oriented.

“We thought (beforehand, the Pirates) would get some big plays. But our kids never allowed that.”

Ishpeming got fumble recoveries from senior defensive back Tyrus Millimaki and junior lineman Dan Thornton, twice held the Pirates on fourth down and limited Harbor Beach QB Eli Kraft to but 18 yards rushing on 12 carries.

“We bottled their quarterback up and kept him from getting outside,” IHS senior linebacker Bobby Zhulkie said.

Added Hematite senior linebacker Mitch Laurin: “We had a good plan on defense, read our keys and moved to the ball. We kept (Kraft) contained.”

Ishpeming used three down linemen and eight in pass coverage.

“I think our three-man line messed them up a little,” Laurin said. “The guys on the line did a great job.”

Kraft often found no one to pass to, completing just two passes of more than 20 yards, one a 53-yard TD toss to Travis Essenmacher with 3:23 left against IHS reserves.

“Our secondary was under a lot of pressure,” Olson said. “Usually, we’ve got three seconds to cover. But the way Kraft scrambles, you have to cover for seven or eight seconds.

“The kids stayed right with their guys, though. They were phenomenal.”

Offensively, the Hematites kept pounding the middle. Briones rushed for a team-high 114 yards on 22 bruising carries and scored on runs of four, seven and three yards.

“Our offensive line played tremendously well with some good technique,” said Briones, who also posted a pair of two-point runs and completed 3 of 5 passes for 42 yards and a pick.

“Coming in, we knew we were bigger (than the Pirates) and our offensive line created some holes. We then ran hard.”

Zhulkie punched the ball over twice on runs of one and two yards to help give Ishpeming a 30-3 halftime lead. A running clock was implemented near the midpoint of the third quarter.

“It was just smashmouth football,” he said. “We ran up the middle and the line blocked great. We just played physical.”

Briones’ 4-yard TD gave IHS a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. It came after Pirates’ head coach Troy Schelke gambled on fourth-and-2 on his team’s 39. But a Kraft pass fell incomplete.

“(The Pirates) were playing to win,” Olson said. “It was a good call on their part, but our kids came up big.”

Added Laurin: “It was a key play and a big drive (afterward). It gave us some momentum.”

Briones’ interception on defense led to Ishpeming’s final score, a 5-yard run by Noah Olgren with Zhulkie providing the lead block. Harbor Beach tried a trick play as tight end Joshua Schelke attempted the pass.

“They ran a reverse. I wasn’t expecting it, but was able to read it,” Briones said. “I ran with (the intended receiver) and was able to get the ball.”

Craig Remsburg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 251. His email address is