All-Stars put on highlight show at Superior Dome

MARQUETTE – Fans in the stands have come to expect the spectacular at the Upper Peninsula Football All-Star Game played on the artificial turf of the Superior Dome in Marquette each June.

The weather is fair – though often stiflingly hot and muggy like it was Saturday – the track is perfect and the players are the best U.P. high schools have to offer from their recent graduating classes.

But this year’s edition seemed to offer more highlight-reel plays than most other years.

Here’s a sequential rundown of what this reporter considered the best:

  • West quarterback Jeff Johnson of Forest Park threw a 70-yard touchdown pass on the third play of the game 58 seconds in to West offensive MVP Devon Harris of Menominee. Harris did most of the work, catching the ball on the fly and sprinting beyond his single defender on a beeline to the end zone.
  • Not to be outdone, on the third play of the East’s first possession, Alex Briones of Ishpeming tossed a nearly identical 85-yard TD pass to Kyle Winkelman of St. Ignace, his only catch of the day. Winkelman also used all the skills of a 100-meter dash athlete.
  • Midway through the first quarter (which were 15 minutes Saturday) was a play unique to this game. Following a TD run by Matt Schultz of North Dickinson, Ryan LaBerge of L’Anse lined up for his second extra-point kick of the afternoon.

The center snap sailed high and through the hands of holder Quintin Lukasik of Stephenson right into LaBerge’s abdomen.

Because the defending team isn’t allowed to rush the kick in this all-star game, LaBerge had plenty of time to hand the ball back to Lukasik, who set the ball down and allowed LaBerge to split the uprights.

“I just tossed it back to (Lukasik) like it was a hot potato,” said LaBerge, who no doubt will never have that opportunity when he joins Northern Michigan University’s team this fall as a kicker.

LaBerge also mentioned this was his first time playing a game on artificial turf.

  • Barely a minute into quarter No. 2, Johnson lofted a perfect third-down pass to Tim Hruska of North Dickinson for a near-certain TD. But the pass might’ve been too perfect as Hruska bobbled and then dropped it, prompting a punt.
  • Though he never touched the ball on the play, Ben Zielinski of the Gogebic Miners gets plenty of credit for a 45-yard run by West teammate Austin Snell of Forest Park.

Zielinski took the attention of two pass defenders, then blocked them both when Snell broke free into the secondary to extend the run.

  • The day’s clutch play goes to the East’s Jake Pearson of Rapid River and Zane Radloff of Negaunee.

The situation – 3rd-and-22 from their own 9-yard line following a holding penalty, 5 1/2 minutes to go before halftime and the West leading 21-13.

Pearson, who traded off QB duties every four plays with Briones, rolled right under pressure on this obvious passing down and chucked it across his body to Radloff, who dove to make a shoestring catch for a 31-yard gain. It didn’t just get the East out of a hole – five plays later Briones completed another 31-yard pass, this time for a TD to Cole Potvin of Manistique.

  • Late in the first half, Briones and Pearson pulled off a drive that would make Brett Favre, Tom Brady or Peyton Manning proud, driving the East 97 yards in 59 seconds that ended with six ticks left on the clock.

The team did well to earlier preserve its timeouts, needing to call two early in the drive following Pearson’s 21-yard run and a QB sack.

Briones then made a 43-yard pass and alertly spiked the ball with 21 seconds left, setting up the improbable 27-yard TD catch by Hematite teammate Mitch Laurin as time ran down.

Briones had to put up a dead duck, heaving the ball left as he ran right to avoid the rush. Laurin not only outjumped his defender, but weaved through several more West players en route to the end zone.

  • Three minutes into the third quarter, Tyler LaJoie of Negaunee ripped off his biggest run of nearly 30 yards, but was stripped of the ball around the West 5 yard line. Teammate Forrest McArthur of Engadine alertly pounced on it with a half-dozen players from both teams in the vicinity to keep possession.
  • However, three plays later, Harris stepped in front of a Pearson pass in the end zone, returning it 40 yards to his team’s 35.
  • That set up a 17-play drive that stalled and brought out LaBerge as field goal kicker for a 36-yard try. While he did make a 50-yarder during the Skills Competition three days earlier, this attempt included a bad snap, a moment’s hesitation to let the holder recover, and a kick that just cleared the crossbar.

“One of their guys tipped it,” LaBerge said about the East defenders. “Everybody thought I had made it for sure, but I thought, ‘Is it going to get there?'”

  • Leading just 27-24 with time running down in the third, Briones hit a 30-yard punt that was muffed by the West and immediately recovered by Michael James of Sault Ste. Marie. That marked the first of three straight West possessions that ended in turnovers.
  • Bobby Zhulkie of Ishpeming sewed up the East Defensive MVP with his goal-line interception of Johnson about three minutes into the fourth quarter. That and Justin DeLisle of Sault Ste. Marie pouncing on a fumble of a backward pass by LaBerge on the next possession doomed any West comeback.
  • Then at the conclusion of the game, fans were invited onto the field for the presentation of awards and contributions.

Ishpeming swept the East awards, with not only Zhulkie taking Defensive MVP, but Briones earning Offensive MVP for throwing four TD passes, while Adam Prisk earned the Character Award.

For the West, Harris took Offensive MVP, Brad Gustafson of North Dickinson the Defensive MVP and Jake Allen of Kingsford the Character Award.

Checks for $1,000 were presented to the Engadine and Rudyard football programs, while all-star head coaches Marty Spencer of St. Ignace for the East and Bill Santilli of Forest Park for the West were each presented a white football signed by every player.

Santilli was also honored as this was his last game as a coach after 18 years as head coach and four seasons previous to that as JV coach for the Trojans.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.