Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Community rallies behind Panthers

Community rallies behind Panthers for title game against Menominee

Wednesday, November 07, 2007
By Jon McQuinn 895-3528

As the state high school football playoffs enter their third week, the number of teams still standing has thinned considerably.

Meanwhile, the array of 'Good Luck' signs around Standish-Sterling Central continues to grow.

The Panthers find themselves playing in Saturday's Division 5 regional title game against Menominee, and they also find themselves making the trip to Gaylord with plenty of local support. And that is something not lost on the players or coach Paul Walderzak.

''The school support and the support around the community has just been awesome,'' Walderzak said. ''Coming do wn the road from any direction to the school, and seeing all those signs, it's been tremendous.

''The kids love it. They're eating it up, and it makes them want to get more done. We haven't had anything quite like this.''

Saturday's game kicks off at 2 p.m. at Gaylord High School. That Gaylord was chosen as the 'neutral site' for a game involving one team less than 90 minutes away and the other based on the Wisconsin border was a surprise to Walderzak.

''I'm shocked we're playing that game in Gaylord,'' Walderzak said. ''I was thinking St. Ignace, maybe Cheboygan, maybe Marquette. I don't understand why we're playing there. It seems like every other team from the U.P. is playing in the (Superior) Dome.

''I mean, we're happy - it makes for a nice trip for us - but we're surprised.''

Standish-Sterling reached Saturday's game by virtue of its 39-34 win over Tawas Area last Friday night at home. There, the Panthers overcame a 2-touchdown deficit in the early going to beat the Braves and move on.

''That was a huge game for us,'' Walderzak said. ''Tawas is a very good football team - very talented, very disciplined, very well-coached - and I've got to give my kids tons of credit for staying with them.

''There were a couple of breakdowns for us, a couple of big plays for Tawas, but our kids kept battling and we had a great second half.''

Senior running back Brad Bialobrzeski enters Saturday's game with 758 yards and 12 touchdowns, while junior quarterback Austin Collier has 1,150 rushing yards and 21 TDs. Defensively, linebackers Adam Gulvas and Jason Kandal are both approaching 130 tackles for the year, according to Walderzak.

But the Panthers will have to come up with their best game of the season to have a shot a Menominee, the state's top-ranked Division 5 team through the regular season and last year's Division 5 state champion.

The Maroons are perhaps just as famous for their offense - the single wing - as they are for their reams of success.

''You hear about all this stuff they run and it's pretty amazing,'' Walderzak said. ''It appears as though they run a lot of power, some counters, and they throw the ball well.''

Ethan Shaver keys the Maroons offense, while Matt Eisenzoph anchors the defense and plays a major role in his team's offensive backfield.

''Ethan was the U.P. Offensive Player of the Year,'' legendary Menominee coach Ken Hofer said. ''He's considered our quarterback, but technically he's our tailback.

''And Matt was the U.P. Defensive Player of the Year this season. He was an All-State linebacker last year, but he's also our fullback and our lead blocker. He's our soul.''

The Maroons reached Saturday's game by routing Elk Rapids 41-0 last weekend. Menominee put up 35 points in the second quarter in that game while Hofer watched from the press box.

''I got nailed in practice a couple of weeks ago,'' Hofer said. ''I fractured my tibia plateau, and they put a plate and seven screws in my knee a week ago Sunday.

''I'm pretty immobile right now - been in the press box the last two Saturdays. I feel better, my strength's a little bit better, but I have no other choice right now but to be in the box. I don't like it up there. There's no energy, and I feed off of that energy.''

Hofer's coached at Stephenson from 1964-71, then returned to the sidelines at Menominee in 1975. He's been there ever since.

And he's done well. Hofer enters Saturday's game with a career record of 278-122-2, and is currently eighth on the Michigan High School Athletic Association's all-time win list. In addition to last year's title, his 1998 squad won the Class BB state title.

Continuity has played a big role; in addition to Hofer and his ancient - and very effective - offense, coaches Satch Englund, Joe Noha and Jamie Schomer have been together for years. Noha played collegiately at Saginaw Valley State University in the early-1980s.

''I've got a great group of coaches, and we have a group of young people who just love to play football,'' Hofer said. ''They're willing to make changes and get better.''

Walderzak knows what his team faces this weekend, but don't expect anyone in Panther land to be awed.

''We're just going to go into it like we'd prepare for any other team,'' Walderzak said. ''We're going to look at what they do best, and do what we can to shut those things down.''

And Standish-Sterling knows it will have a pretty good ''12th man'' in the stands come Saturday.

''What's happened around here is really special,'' Walderzak said. ''You hear of other communities who go through this, and it's a great feeling to be in the middle of it.''

Bay City Times/ Michigan Live


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