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North Central, Pickford set to square off for regional final

POWERS — Arguably the top two eight-player football teams in the state are set to collide in a Division 2 regional final when top-ranked North Central and third-ranked Pickford line up across from each other for the second time this season Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EST in Powers.

The unbeaten Jets handed the 9-1 Panthers their only loss of the season Sept. 14 at North Central. The Jets won that game 20-14, largely because they forced seven turnovers and picked off five passes by Pickford star quarterback Jimmy Storey.

“We definitely don’t want to turn the ball over seven times again,” Panthers’ coach Josh Rader said jokingly in a phone interview Wednesday. “To win against a good team like North Central, we’re going to have to possess the ball. You give a team with the talent they have extra possessions and it’s a recipe for disaster. We’re going to make sure we manage the football the best that we can.”

This rematch will feature it all. A strong case can be made these are the top two eight-player teams in the entire state — not just in Division 2. Pickford was a state runner-up in D-1 last season before losing enough enrollment to drop down to D-2. North Central’s football history speaks for itself — the Jets won back-to-back state titles in 2015 and 2016 and have been in the playoffs every year since.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’ve got two great teams going at it — arguably the two best teams in the state,” Rader said. “There’s going to be a lot of excitement with the game being played on a cold Saturday in November — it’s just typical U.P. football weather. The intensity is going to be high. I think it’s probably going to come all the way down to the last two plays.”

This contest will also feature great individual players. Six players on the All-U.P. Dream Team play for North Central or Pickford, with three on each. The most notable ones are Storey and North Central quarterback Noah Gorzinski.

Storey — the 2018 Associated Press State Player of the Year — was named the Great Lakes Eight Conference Offensive Player of the Year this season and was also a Dream Team linebacker.

“Everything revolves around No. 18 (Storey),” Jets’ coach Leo Gorzinski said. “He’s a great player and such a strong kid. He plays both ways, so we try to use that a little bit against him and make him chase, but it comes down to getting them stopped on the early downs and forcing them to make decisions they’re not comfortable with. When they get the momentum going, they keep pounding… But that was the game plan the first time — stop them on the early downs and force them into the situations where we don’t have to guess if they’re throwing, but where they’re forced to throw.”

Meanwhile, Gorzinski was named Offensive Player of the Year in the U.P. and was also named Dream Team quarterback. North Central also has two other star Gorzinskis — linebacker Leo Gorzinski Jr. and defensive end/wide receiver Luke Gorzinski.

“Defensively, it seems like we have to stop a million Gorzinski’s because they’re everywhere,” Rader joked. “We have to keep them from getting out in the open field, because when they’re in the open field they have great speed. They do a great job manipulating defenses to put their players in the open field so they can make plays. We want to minimize that and give ourselves opportunities to make plays. They have a lot of team speed, so it’s going to be real difficult.”

The Jets advanced to the regional final by snapping a two-year playoff skid with a 46-28 win over Crystal Falls (Forest Park), while the Panthers routed Engadine 57-12.

“(They’re) a lot like the last team we played,” coach Gorzinski said. “They’re an extremely talented, strong and experienced football team. They like to come at you downhill and they’re successul at that. They’re well-coached and they have one of the premier players in the state. You have to maintain your gaps and stop the run on early downs.”

Each coach felt like they learned something from the first meeting.

“(We saw) their team speed and overall athleticism is incredible, so we have to take that into account,” Rader said. “They make some big plays and we need to try to stop those if we’re going to win this game.”

Coach Gorzinski believes both teams can learn from it.

“It helps both teams. Our gift and what we’re blessed with is the speed, so on film you don’t really get to judge that. When you play us face-to-face, you can get a little bit of bearing and shift some things around to play against that,” he said. “For our kids, we’ve been a pretty decent program as well, but they were the top tier. So now that we know we can compete with them and take those guys down, our kids are playing with confidence.”

The winner will host the winner of Cedarville and Hillman next week in the state semifinals.

“It’s going to be an exciting game — it’s what playoff football is all about,” Rader said. “It was a tight game last time and it’s going to be a tight game again this time.”

Coach Gorzinski says it’s great for the community.

“It’s great for the community and it’s great for everybody to come out,” he said. “We’re two of the top teams in the state, we’re playing down here at North Central and I wish all of the seniors luck for both teams. I just want a good, clean, healthy game.”

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