Petoskey’s defense was rock solid last week in pitching a shutout in the season opener against Sault Ste. Marie.
That defense will face a test when the Northmen play host to West Branch Ogemaw Heights in their Big North Conference football opener on Friday, Aug. 31.
“I thought our defense played really well last week,” said Petoskey coach Kerry VanOrman, whose team limited the Blue Devils to 99 total yards and five first downs. “We’ve said before that I think the defense will be the backbone of this football team this year, no question.”
The Falcons built a 38-7 lead en route to a 38-20 victory over Standish-Sterling in their opener a week ago.
“They present problems for you because of their speed,” VanOrman said of the Falcons. “They’ll try to hit you in different ways. They like to run power at you with two tight ends and see if you can defend that, see if you can defend the speed, see if you can defend the option.
“You have to prepare for the option and the sweep. You’ve just got to be a really disciplined defense and make sure everybody carries out their assignment, and that you’ve got everybody covered.”
Runningback Brandon Benac, a senior who was a first-team All-Big North Conference pick last season, ran for 165 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries a week ago. Jerome Hunter, a good-sized wide receiver, had four catches for 102 yards and a TD.
Junior Devin Griffus and sophomore Ben Hartley split time at quarterback, while 6-foot-5, 270-pound junior Alec Stevens, a returning starter, leads Ogemaw’s offensive line.
Linebackers Garrett Hartley, Kyle Bachelder LB and Tim Howard lead Ogemaw’s defense.
“We’re very young,” said Andrew Pratley, who is in his ninth year as the Falcons’ coach. “We only have 13 seniors on the roster, and a couple of them have never played before. We play a lot of juniors, a lot of first-year varsity kids.”
The Falcons are coming off a 4-5 season, their first non-winning slate since 2004. They saw their streak of six straight playoff seasons come to an end in 2011, their first season in the Big North.
The Falcons finished 2-4 in the league last fall. They have long played the likes of Petoskey and Gaylord in non-conference games and they had faced teams such as Traverse City Central and T.C. West from time to time before joining the league.
Still, playing a Big North slate was an adjustment, Pratley said.
“Going back-to-back weeks like that, there’s no off weeks in the league,” he said. “They (the Ogemaw players) took a lot of motivation from that in the weight room and knew they had to get a lot stronger to be able to take the physical pounding in the league.
“We feel like we can compete. We played Central (last year) down to the wire, and went to double overtime with Cadillac.
“It’s just a matter of staying healthy and getting our young kids to adapt quickly and keep battling.”
The Northmen and Falcons have had their share of battles in a series that was dominated by Ogemaw until 2008. The Falcons won 13 of the first 16 meetings, but the Northmen have won five of the last six.
“I think the biggest thing is Kerry’s really done a great job of establishing a program,” Pratley said. “The kids really buy into it and it seems like they just keep replacing kids and that’s the mark of a good program. They’re very fundamentally sound and do what they do very well.”
The Northmen entered the season, as every team does, with plenty of question marks, particularly in the offensive backfield. Junior Chase Ledingham turned in a breakout performance in the 21-0 win over Sault Ste. Marie last week with 155 yards on 22 carries, while sophomore Kurt Boucher added 71 yards on 15 attempts in his first varsity start.
Senior quarterback Quinn Ameel completed 5-of-8 passes for 64 yards, and added 61 yards rushing on 10 attempts, showing the potential to be a dangerous double threat.
“I think one of things that scares me the most is he’s such a different dimension than maybe they’ve had (at quarterback),” Pratley said of Ameel, who is in his third season on the varsity and second as the starting signal-caller. “He’s matured a lot, gotten faster and stronger, and he gives them a threat that they maybe haven’t had in the past, or maybe they didn’t need.”
Ameel’s backup, junior Peter Kelbel, has left the team. Kelbel was also the punter.
Senior Tony DeAgostino, a two-year starter at cornerback, is now the backup quarterback, while placekicker Louis Lamberti will assume the punting duties, VanOrman said.
The kicking game, he added, could play a major role in Friday’s game.
“Our cover teams played well and our return team played really well (against the Sault),” VanOrman said. “When you’re playing good defense and ball control (offense), you’ve got to have a good cover team and a good kick-return team. I think that’s going to be a big part it, field position.”
The Northmen were flagged five times for 55 yards last week against the Sault, and had a touchdown nullified by an illegal block in the back.
“You can’t have penalties like we had last week,” VanOrman said. “We’re going to play some good football games, close football games this year and that’s something you cannot have. That’lll kill you for sure.”