BY MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — On the road again.
For a number of northern Michigan football teams, the playoffs begin with a road trip. Some trips are short, others are long and some are altogether new.
Kalkaska, which is in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, will travel to Shelby on Friday in the Division 6 pre-district and coach Jeremy Wilkinson expects a large contingent of fans to make the trip.
"It's the biggest game Kalkaska has had in 10 years since the last time we went to the playoffs," Wilkinson said. "That's all people seem to be talking about now is the football game on Friday. We've buckled down and let the kids know they've got to come out ready to play. This time of the year, some games it doesn't come down to who is the better team, it's who is playing the best. Out of the last six quarters we've played, we've played really well and could probably stick with anyone."
The Blazers and Tigers come in with 7-2 records. Kalkaska got there with two big wins — 44-20 over Frankfort and 44-7 over Elk Rapids to close out the season. Shelby denied Spring Lake of a playoff berth last week with a 14-8 win.
Prior to the announcement of the pairings, Wilkinson said he heard plenty of possibilities for first-round opponents, including two-time defending state champion Ithaca.
"You look at Shelby, and we don't take them lightly, but it's not Ithaca," Wilkinson said. "It's a school that's a little bit smaller than us, they play some schools smaller than we do. You've still got to go out and play, but it's not as deceiving compared to drawing and Ithaca, or Kingsford, or Menominee, or Rockford or teams like that."
Kingsley, in fact, drew Menominee this year in Division 5. It'll be the second straight season the Stags will open on the road against the Maroons.
Last week, Kingsley (6-3) built some momentum heading into the playoffs with a 51-8 win over Hart. It was the fourth time this season the Stags have surpassed 50 points.
Menominee, which beat Petoskey 22-17 last week, suffered its only loss of the season in Week 5 against Kingsford. The Flivvers (8-1) will host Grayling on Saturday, despite the Vikings finishing 9-0 for the first time in school history.
"We had a good idea a few weeks ago that we'd likely be traveling," Grayling coach Tim Sanchez said. "We've traveled up there (U.P.) the last three years and got beat, and the last two years we got beat pretty bad. We want some revenge. We want to go up there and prove that we can win up there. So we look at it as an opportunity.
"I'm excited about the trip, and I think the trip is going to be just as good as the game."
Kingsford is led by senior running back Reed Larson.
"He's the real deal," Sanchez said. "He's every bit the athlete of a (St. Francis junior Byron) Bullough, or a (Harbor Springs junior David) Walker or the backs for Kalkaska. He's just a pure running back with good feet, good balance and he's strong and fast."
Sanchez said it helps that in preparing for Kingsford his Vikings have seen some quality running backs.
Last week, Grayling beat Boyne City 21-0 for the Lake Michigan Conference title in a battle of unbeatens. But in Division 6, the Ramblers had enough points for a home game and will host 8-1 and Northwest Conference champion Glen Lake.
Like Boyne City, the Lakers are coming off their first loss of the year — a 22-14 setback to North Muskegon, which sent the team on the road for the first week of the playoffs.
"It's over with," Lakers coach Jerry Angers said. "We talked about it Friday night when we got off the bus. It's over with and we're moving on. We never talked about an undefeated season. We talked about winning the conference, we talked about qualifying for the playoffs and moving on. The goals we set at the beginning of the year, we reached. We all understand as a team, our goal was to play in the postseason and we're here."
And the Lakers have a chance to get back on track.
"It was awful nice that when you lose (in Week 9) you get an opportunity to come back on Monday and work out the kinks," Angers said. "To give the seniors another chance to play a great game has definitely helped out. Our JVs are practicing and we've probably got 80 percent of those kids staying. So that's an extra week of practice for them, which has been great. And they're giving us a great look."
Some northern Michigan teams did secure a home playoff game. In Division 7, Mancelona hosts Whittemore-Prescott for the second year in a row.
Returning All-Stater Wyatt Derrer led Mancelona with 9.5 yards a carry and 21 rushing touchdowns this season. He was recently named the Ski Valley Conference South Division MVP.
Fellow Ski Valley Conference schools Johannesburg-Lewiston and Central Lake each drew a home game in Division 8. The Cardinals (7-2) host Hillman (5-4) while the Trojans (6-3) take on Onaway (5-4).
Two weeks ago, Central Lake hosted and beat Onaway 45-14. It was the third victory in a four-game winning streak for the Trojans to get into the playoffs.
In Division 3, Cadillac drew a home game against Owosso, as both teams finished with 6-3 records. Owosso hasn't been in the playoffs since 2001.