MARQUETTE - Save the competition for today. And this weekend.
On Tuesday, the football players who ended their high school playing careers last fall couldn't say enough good things about each other inside the dome at media day for the Upper Peninsula All-Star Game that takes place at 3 p.m. Saturday indoors in the dome.
"It's a huge honor to be with these guys. This is the best there is in the U.P.," said Ian Mayotte of Negaunee, who was a two-year starter at linebacker for this perennial playoff team.
In addition to the game, players will take part in a number of skills competitions at the dome this afternoon. On the field will be throwing, running and agility drills, while inside a nearby weight room, athletes will take place in weightlifting competitions.
"These guys are a blast. They're excellent athletes," said Jake Pearson of Rapid River, who despite coming from one of the smallest of about three dozen schools represented, is one of the tallest players at 6-foot-3.
The prolific 8-man football quarterback makes an excellent tandem with all-state and state championship signal caller Alex Briones of Ishpeming.
"I don't know how they're going to beat us with the quarterback and the running backs we have," said Gwinn's lone representative, fullback Owen DeVooght, from the edge of the dome's field on Tuesday evening.
"And receivers," piped in a lanky teammate who looked to be one.
"And lineman," said another, who looked like he had the build for that position.
"And linebackers and cornerbacks, too," DeVooght finished the statement by his East squad teammates.
The East has won the last five East-West matchups played at the Superior Dome in late June, with the West taking its lone win in the first game played in 2008.
This year is the last shot for the West to win again, since organizer Todd Goldbeck of Xcel Sports said next year will switch to North and South teams.
A West player didn't seem too worry about not being able to compete.
"These are all the best players out of the teams from the U.P.," said Jake Allen of Kingsford. "Everyone here is bigger and faster and knows what they're doing.
"I think we'll be all right."
Like last weekend's U.P. All-Star Classic basketball games, these games are reserved for recently graduated seniors.
A minority will probably get to continue playing in college, whether it's close to home at Northern Michigan or Michigan Tech universities, or far away at places like Central Michigan and Dayton.
But for most, this will be the last game they ever play with pads and helmets - and thousands of screaming fans.
"We just want to try and make this last," said Pat Dowling, standing alongside Marquette Senior High School teammate Gabe Apple.
"I'm looking forward to not having to go to practice on Monday after the game," Apple said with a grin.
"But at the same time, it's still probably the last game I'll ever play. We want to leave everything we have out on this field."
One of the dozen coaches involved is also enthusiastic about this gathering of players.
"This is so much fun," said Newberry head football coach and athletic directory Fred Bryant, serving as defensive coordinator for the East.
"You tell these guys something once - and boom! - they have it.
"You don't have to spend a lot of time covering the basics. They already know it. Just their attitudes - this is a great group of kids."
He mentioned a few tweaks to the rules, such as offensives only allowed four basic formations and defenses only allowed to play zone pass defense and not stunting at the line.
"And if a team falls behind by more than a touchdown, they have the option of receiving the kick when they score, just to keep the game more competitive," Bryant said.
The Indians coach also mentioned that Goldbeck contributes jerseys, game balls and monetary contributions - probably around $1,000 - to various U.P. schools.
Goldbeck has a full schedule of activities set for players this week. In addition to practices every day, they contributed more than 900 pounds of food to the Beacon House pantry on Monday and will travel to Big Bay to interact with campers at the Bay Cliff Health Camp on Thursday.
The 90-some players are staying in a dorm at NMU during the week, allowing a bit more camaraderie to develop among players who mostly had known each other as adversaries.
"There's a lot of cool guys I'm finally getting to know," said Baraga's lone representative, Dillion Hueckstaedt.