UPDATED: Wykons beat Frankfort for first regional title since 1977
West Iron faces Saginaw Nouvel in Division 8 state semifinal
IRON RIVER — The Wykons held a nine-point lead with plenty of time for Frankfort to seize momentum.
The Panthers had creeped closer and closer to West Iron’s lead. The Wykons had the ball fourth-and-3 around midfield. A turnover on downs meant Frankfort could get the ball and continue riding stud running back Griffin Kelly.
Wykons head coach Mike Berutti wasn’t having any of that. He reached into the playbook to hit the Panthers with something they hadn’t seen on film: Buck Sweep, a quarterback keeper the Wykons ran only twice all season. But it all depended on the snap, since it was a shotgun set. In four inches of snow and 29-degree weather. As the Wykons lined up, the Panthers immediately recognized a formation they didn’t see on film and called a timeout. Berutti asked his players about the playcall during the timeout.
“‘Guys what do you think?'” Berutti recalled asking during the timeout. “They were like ‘Coach, we’ve gotten this far, believe in us.’ I said OK, run it.”
West Iron quarterback Neil Tomasoski faked to the Wykons’ leading rusher this season, Jayce Brockhagen, and scrambled down the left sideline for a 54-yard touchdown, sealing a 35-20 win to play in a Division 8 state semifinal on Friday.
It is West Iron’s first regional title since 1977, after making its first appearance in the title game since 2008. The Wykons face Saginaw Nouvel at 7 p.m. EST Friday at the Superior Dome in Marquette.
A fresh four inches of snow on Nelson Field and a 29-degree game-time temperature set the scene for Saturday’s regional final. The conditions made an immediate impact on the game.
Frankfort coughed up four turnovers in its loss to West Iron County (11-1), including three fumbles and an interception.
“Both teams had to play in these conditions, so we can’t use that as an excuse,” Frankfort head coach Matt Stapleton said. “But it did limit things. We do like throwing the ball and being able to run the ball in open space. We had trouble doing both with the snow. It was a huge factor early for us with the fumbles.”
Frankfort faced a 22-6 halftime deficit before its offense finally gained momentum and rhythm. After gaining 94 yards of total offense in the first half and down 29-6, Panthers running back Griffin Kelly scored a 51-yard touchdown off a screen pass with 6:50 in the third.
West Iron County got the ball back around midfield and methodically ran the ball. The Wykons pushed to the Panthers’ 10 before a couple tackles for loss and a Wykons penalty set them up fourth-and-goal from the Panthers’ 46. The Panthers fielded a punt at their 37 with 11:42 to go.
Kelly took over for the Panthers with a pair of big runs that got them to the Wykons’ 17. He scored on an 8-yard run soon after, followed by a successful two-point conversion.
All of a sudden, it was a nine-point game. The Wykons’ lead was trimmed to 29-20 with 9:08 remaining.
Stapleton said the momentum change wasn’t the result of anything fancy — just better play.
“We finally got stops on defense,” he said. “We didn’t make big changes or anything, we just started executing better. We made better blocks and got aggressive.”
The Wykons got the ball back and picked up a first down. The Panthers held West Iron to the fourth-and-3 setting up Tomasoski’s touchdown run. Berutti said the decision to go for it was to keep the Panthers’ offense off the field with that much time left.
“I didn’t want to give them the ball back that fast and I called it,”Berutti said. “Our center (Brayden Nelson) got the ball perfect, right where it had to be.
“We went into shotgun and figured they were going to follow Jayce. I know it’s something they haven’t seen on tape — we’ve only run that play twice this year. I figured Neil’s smart enough that he’s going to protect the football.”
Frankfort got the ball back and threw an interception. West Iron proceeded to run out as much time as possible.
The early turnovers and Wykons’ ability to move the ball early were big factors in West Iron dictating the tempo. But the Wykons’ 3-4 defense was key, even though it was the first time all season they ran it.
“This is the third week in a row we’ve lined up a defense to take away what they do best, different than what we’ve run all year. We’ve never run a 3-4 defense,” Berutti said. “We sat in that thing almost the entire game with guys playing in different areas they haven’t played. How often do we see spread football teams? Hancock, a little bit, and then we haven’t seen a back like (Kelly) all year. Again, hats off to our kids with being resilient and believing in each other, just going out and blocking and tackling. That’s what it comes down to.”
Stapleton said the Panthers hadn’t faced deficits often, especially nothing like the 29-6 hole they found themselves in.
“We haven’t been down much this season,” he said. “I think the kids panicked a little bit at first, but we stuck to it. When we stick to it, we can move the football.”
West Iron gained momentum early in the game with a couple turnovers and, despite not scoring, had moved the ball offensively while limiting Frankfort.
The Panthers (9-3) recovered a Wykons fumble with 8:43 in the opening quarter before fumbling twice on its first play from the line of scrimmage. Frankfort was helped by a 15-yard facemask but the Wykons gained back the ball after a turnover on downs.
Within the first five minutes of the game, both teams had fumbled twice. Both of the Panthers’ first fumbles came on the same play.
Frankfort forced a fourth-down conversion attempt by West Iron. The Wykons attempted a pass that was intercepted at the Panthers’ 5, but would have gotten the ball back at their 15 if it was just swatted down. A snap went over the head of Frankfort quarterback Kirk Myers as the Wykons sent a blitz. Myers picked up the ball, but threw it as he was being tackled. The ball deflected straight up and was intercepted by Wykons defensive back Zach Quintero in the end zone. The score had put West Iron up 15-0 early in the second quarter.
Kelly finished the game with a team-high 121 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. The Panthers’offense collected 249 total yards including 159 rushing and 90 passing. Myers completed 6 of 14 throws for 90 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.
The Panthers keyed on Brockhagen throughout the game, limiting him to 53 yards on 15 carries. He also lost a fumble, his third of the season. Brockhagen missed a game during the regular season but still accumulated 1,186 yards and 18 touchdowns on 145 carries. At 5-foot-11 and 245 pounds, the Panthers mirrored his movements on defense throughout the game. That, with the snow prevented Brockhagen from getting up to his 4.6-second 40-yard dash speed.
That left Austin Persson for West Iron County, who came up with a team-high 150 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries.
The Wykons had 321 total yards including 286 rushing and 35 passing. Tomasoski completed 2 of 5 passes for 35 yards with an interception.
Berutti said the town has rallied around the Wykons’ success.
“You look around, as soon as you got close to town, you saw signs up. As soon as you got to Stambaugh Hill, there are signs. Walking in to Nelson Field there were signs,” he said. “Our businesses, people in town, purchased something like 160 tickets for kids to get in free. We rallied around the volleyball team, rallied around the girls basketball team last year and they’re rallying around the football team right now. I can’tsay enough about our student body and our staff at West Iron County Schools.”
Frankfort 0 6 6 8 — 20
West Iron 15 7 7 6 — 35
WIC — Austin Persson, 21-yard run (Neil Tomasoski kick), 0:17
WIC — Zach Quintero, interception for touchdown (2-pt good), 9:34
WIC — Persson, 2-yard run (Tomasoski kick), 5:25
FHS — Griffin Kelly, 10-yard run (2-pt failed), 0:49
WIC — Persson, 63-yard run (Tomasoski kick), 9:12
FHS — Kelly, 51-yard reception (2-pt failed), 6:50
FHS — Kelly, 8-yard run (2-pt good), 9:08
WIC — Tomasoski, 54-yard run (2-pt failed), 6:21
Total yards — WIC 321, FHS 249
Passing yards — WIC 35, FHS 90
Rushing yards — WIC 286, FHS 159
First downs — WIC 13, FHS 10
3rd downs — WIC 4-13 (31%), FHS 3-9 (33%)
4th downs — WIC 3-5 (60%), FHS 3-6 (50%)
Turnovers — WIC 2, FHS 4
Fumbles lost — WIC 1, FHS 3
Interceptions — WIC 1, FHS 1
Penalties — WIC 10, FHS 6
Penalty yards — WIC 60, FHS 32