By Ben Murphy
It’s the first ever meeting for Clare and Standish-Sterling’s football programs and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The Pioneers (8-2) host the Panthers (7-3) tonight for the division five district championship.
“We’ve never played them but we’ve seen each other a number of times,” Clare head coach Kelly Luplow said. “We’ve watched each other in the playoffs over the years and we see them scrimmage against Freeland. They have had a very successful program there for years. They’re living on a lot of tradition, a lot like we are and that kind of makes it exciting.”
The Pioneers, champions of the Jack Pine Conference with a perfect 7-0 league mark last won a district championship in 2009, a year they also advanced to the state finals. The Panthers, who survived a rigorous independent schedule to advance to their second straight post-season, last won a district crown in 2008, a year they advanced to the state semi-finals.
“We’re just looking forward to the opportunity,” Standish head coach Paul Walderzak. “Clare has a great football program and tradition and we’re just hoping to come over and play the best game we can. I see this as being a very good football game.”
The Panthers may have the biggest size of any team Clare has played to this season and boasts strong running backs in Alec Gulvas, Matt Crawford and Austin Fletcher. Gulvas has missed significant time this season with an injury but managed to run for 122 yards and a touchdown in his return in last week’s 49-29 win over Gladwin. Jacob LeClair is the team’s quarterback and has thrown over 1000 yards this season, though he has just one more touchdown pass (six) than interceptions (five). On defense the Panthers are led by linebacker Dan Miller who has 127 tackles on the year.
“We’re not as big as they are but that doesn’t bother us,” Luplow said. “They’re going to come out and hit us. We’re not going to back down, we’re just as aggressive as they are, if not more.”
Walderzak, in his 31st year as head coach of the Panthers knows that size alone wont win his team the game either.
“We’re going to have to take care of the ball when we have it,” he said. “That’s going to be a key for us, maintaining our drives and not turning it over, whether we’re punting the ball or just making mistakes and turning it over. Defensively we’re going to have to take care of their quarterback (Zack Tyler) and their (running backs). That looks like a big task but I think we match up quite well, I really do. I don’t know if there’s any one thing that we’re necessarily stronger than they are… I see it to be a pretty even game.”
Luplow agrees in the importance of holding on to the ball this time of year.
“I think it’s going to come down to execution and special teams,” he said. “You can’t have turnovers at this level and expect to win. Cut down on turnovers and have good special teams is important… I guess it’s just going to be who’s going to play the hardest on Friday night.”