Prep football: Ishpeming QB Briones looks to add second state title to All-U.P., AP All-State honors

ISHPEMING – Today could be just the beginning of a memorable week for Alex Briones, a time when he can convert four years of hard work into the final two jewels in a Triple Crown of accomplishments.

The Ishpeming High School senior quarterback earned the second gem when it was announced this morning he was named one of two first-team quarterbacks on the 2013 Associated Press Division 7 and 8 All-State football team.

The first came earlier this month when he was anointed the Upper Peninsula’s Large Schools Offensive Player of the Year by the U.P. Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

But Briones will agree that his final high school football season won’t be complete without the most important shiny stone to be placed in his regal headgear – Saturday’s shot at leading the Hematites to their second straight MHSAA Division 7 state championship at Ford Field in Detroit.

“It’s been a crazy, wonderful ride,” he said about four years of playing football for his school. “I’ve been blessed with some great teammates.

“Ever since my freshman year, I’ve been working out pretty hard at AdvantEdge Sports,” Briones said about the physical training facility in Marquette. “We definitely have a strong group. We’ve tried to get better and get bigger.”

It’s worked for Briones, who started out as a freshman at what he estimates was a 5-foot-10, 185-pound wide receiver on the JV team in the regular season and on the varsity squad during its playoff run to a state runner-up finish in 2010.

Now he’s listed at 6-2 and 215 pounds, every ounce used to punish opposing teams only infrequently with a strong and accurate arm. Much more often he’s called upon to be a physical presence as a runner or a blocker on offense, and an intelligent, aggressive linebacker on defense.

That’s not to mention a guy who normally handles all his team’s kicking chores, too.

“I consider myself a quarterback, but I can either run the ball, find the open hole and block, or throw the ball where our receivers can make a play,” he said.

He might force national sportswriter John Wertheim to update his story about the Hematites’ inspirational 2012 run to the state title in an online Sports Illustrated piece, when he talked about IHS head coach Jeff Olson coalescing limited talent into successful teams even though “in two decades, no player under Olson has made the roster at a D-I (NCAA Division I) school.”

That’s because Briones says he’s fielded calls from schools like Central Michigan University, while an Ishpeming assistant coach has talked about him to at least one offensive coach at Michigan State University. Both, of course, are Div. I institutions.

“These honors, they’re well deserved because they’re a tough thing to achieve,” Olson said about his star player. “Alex is the total package – he can run, throw, block and leads our team.

“On the defensive side as a linebacker, he’s in an extremely important position. He does a great job reading and getting there because of his knowledge and his athletic ability.”

Olson said it was no accident that Briones hadn’t tossed an interception until the second quarter of the team’s 13th game this season, Saturday’s 44-10 romp at the Superior Dome over defending Division 8 champion Harbor Beach.

Just to make up for the pick, Briones snagged an interception of his own while playing defense in the fourth quarter of the same game, setting up his team’s final score of the day. It was his second pick this season.

Briones credits a great group he’s grown up with, something Olson also credits for this team’s continued success.

“We put our heart into it and we keep each other in check,” Briones said. “Even if we happen to blow out a team, we know we have to keep stressing that we have to do the little things the right way.

“(Olson) has been perfect for us, and (assistant coach Scott) ‘Surge’ (Syrjala), he’s done a great job, too.”

Briones didn’t need much time when asked who are some of the unsung heroes on the team – a couple of seniors who have come up with him through the ranks, not to mention the guys who allow him to flourish on offense.

“Tyrus (Millimaki), Derek (DeCaire) and our whole offensive line,” he said in answer to that question. “Tyrus because he runs great routes for me. He’s got quick feet, and on defense, he locks right down on whoever the offensive player is he’s covering.

“Derek, he’s great on defense, and on offense, he’s a great ‘stock blocker.'”

He explained that last term as what a wideout has to do to open holes for a runner like himself.

“If it wasn’t for him, the cornerback would get me every time,” Briones said.

Despite appearing in three championship games in his high school career and earning all these honors, not everything has been easy for Briones.

Last season, he suffered a fracture of ones of the bones on top of the middle of his foot. He missed several games at midseason, but by resting it, was able to play throughout the playoffs.

Then when the season was over, the foot was immobilized for a month and forced him to miss all but the last few weeks of the subsequent winter basketball season.

“The worst part was the pain,” Briones said. “It’s a weight-bearing bone, so every step I could feel it. It came to the point where I almost wasn’t able to walk.”

He dealt with a different kind of pain before that due to several deaths in his school.

There was Olson’s son, Daniel, who took his life less than a month before the start of the 2012 season after suffering for years with depression and anxiety.

The younger brother of two girls basketball players, Christopher “Bubba” Croley, died not too long before that in a Wisconsin traffic accident.

But the one that had to hit hardest was the 2011 death of Alex’s older brother, Derrick, at age 18.

The elder Briones, four years older than Alex, was “definitely one of my main inspirations,” Alex said.

Alex watched Derrick as a receiver on the Ishpeming High School football team for several years before his own playing days began.

“There’s a game I’ll always remember. I was in eighth grade, and it was against Traverse City (St. Francis) in the (Superior) Dome,” Alex said. “He made a real nice touchdown catch and he had two interceptions, too.

“He was really excited to see me get to high school and start playing football. I’m always going to feel a motivation because of him. When I pray to God, I always mention him. I feel like he’s looking out for me.”