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North Central carries strong resume into finals

North Central head football coach Leo Gorzinski, right, leads a practice Wednesday evening at North Central High School. Gorzinski was named 2020 U.P. 8-player Coach of the Year by the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters for the second consecutive season. The Jets take on Portland St. Patrick on Saturday afternoon in the Division 2 state championship game. (Matt McCarthy/Daily News photo)

POWERS — After a football season that began Aug. 10, the North Central Jets will travel across the Mackinac Bridge today. They’ll do so to complete their journey to the 8-player state championship game.

North Central (10-0), will take on Portland St. Patrick (10-0) on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. Central time at the Legacy Center in Brighton. The Legacy Center is an indoor turf facility that became the site of the MHSAA 8-player championships in this pandemic-delayed season.

Midland Community Stadium was set to host the two title games, but it’s not a temperature-controlled indoor facility and, after all, the games are being played in mid-January in Michigan.

The Jets’ returning players remember the sting they felt losing on their home field in the 2019 regional final to eventual state champion Pickford.

“Since that loss, the kids having been working towards getting past that game, not only to get to the semis and now to the finals, but getting redemption for themselves,” North Central head coach Leo Gorzinski explained. “Myself and the coaching staff take as much responsibility for that Pickford loss. We weren’t prepared or had the kids prepared for the field conditions, and Pickford was prepared.”

This season, with the exception of their Oct. 16 game, a snowy 34-22 win at Lake Linden played without a handful of quarantined players, the Jets cruised to victory in all of their regular season games.

They’ve even rolled to playoff victories, outscoring Engadine, Lake Linden-Hubbell, Cedarville and Marion a combined 231-24 in the postseason.

The Shamrocks, who play an independent schedule, have had only two close games. On Oct. 16, they slipped past Merrill 26-22. In their regional championship game, PSP defeated defending 2019 8-player Division 1 state champion Colon, 44-34.

St. Patrick outscored their opponents 435-183 on the season, to the Jets’ 539-66.

A couple of other things that can be noted:

— North Central Associated Press all-state first team quarterback sophomore Luke Gorzinski threw 20 TD passes on the season, with zero interceptions. The Shamrocks’ senior quarterback Connor Cross threw 21 TD passes and one interception.

— The Jets defense allowed around 1,000 total yards through 10 games, while PSP defense allowed nearly 2,500 yards of total offense. The NC defense intercepted 13 passes on the season, with almost half of them being returned for touchdowns; the Shamrocks defense picked off nine passes.

— The Jets defense only allowed two passing touchdowns all season in 114 pass attempts; while the Shamrocks defense allowed 12 in 126 pass attempts.

“St. Patrick is going to bring with them a lot of playoff experience, their quarterback alone has four straight regional championships,” said Gorzinski. “They’re going to have the best executed offense we’re going to face this season, we’re expecting a challenge from them, they have plenty of great athletes.”

They play different than we’re used to, they pass the ball a whole lot,” Gorzinski added. “They tend to drop back and try to cut off passing lanes.”

St. Patrick made the switch to 8-player competition in 2012, and since them have been successful in the 8-player ranks. They were state runners up to Pickford, 48-15, at the Superior Dome last season.

The Shamrocks lost to Forest Park, also in the Superior Dome, in the 2017 Division 2 state championship game, 54-12. Back in 1997, St. Patrick lost in the Class D state championship game to head coach Ron Warner and the Lake Linden-Hubbell Lakes, 30-8 at the Pontiac Silverdome.

St. Patrick’s first ever playoff appearance was in 1991, making it all the way the Class D state championship game, losing to Frankfort 21-7. In 1992, Frankfort and the Shamrocks made it back to the Silverdome in the Class D title game, only that year, PSP took home the trophy, defeating Frankfort 34-13.

Besides Pickford, LL-H and Forest Park, the only other U.P. team the Shamrocks have faced is Engadine. St. Patrick defeated the Eagles in consecutive seasons — Week 1 of the regular season in 2013 and 2014.

The Jets have seen great success since their switch to 8-player in 2015, winning the state championship that season and also in 2016. Gorzinski noted that the back-to-back state titles with Kevin Bellefeuil as the Jets head coach is what really put NC football in the conversation throughout the state.

“We’ve been fortunate here at NC, this being my third year as head coach, we’ve had exceptional players; respectful kids who have worked hard,” Gorzinski said. “Kevin (Bellefeuil) got it all started and we’re grateful for that and all of the great athletes he coached.”

Gorzinski noted that he feels this year’s team may have a bit of an upper hand in comparison to the first two teams he led, due to the bond that this year’s squad has created through the pandemic. “I think that sets us apart from anyone we would have to face this season as well,” Gorzinski added.

Gorzinski believes everyone is in the right frame of mind entering a championship game.

“The biggest hurdle at this point is the COVID testing, getting tested every 48 hours. It’s really taken away some of the fun and excitement of this whole experience,” Gorzinski said. “But I guess it’s better than the alternative, which would essentially be not playing at all.”

Gorzinski would like to express his thanks to the Wells Sports Complex in Escanaba and the Superior Dome in Marquette. “Getting to practice at those two places the last couple of weeks, getting the kids acclimated to the turf and playing in inside air, has been very beneficial,” said Gorzinski.

Saturday’s state championship game will be broadcast live on Eagle 107.3 FM and also streamed live on Fox Sports Detroit’s website and Facebook page.

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