BY MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — Call this a "battle royal" for the Lake Michigan Conference title.
Two weeks in, Boyne City, Elk Rapids and Grayling share the conference lead, Kalkaska is a game back and Harbor Springs is two off with four games to play.
Let the best team win.
"When you take a look at the conference race, we're just getting into the thick of it," Elks coach Ed Schindler said. "I think there's a lot of parity in the conference right now. The next four weeks are going to be exciting. Certainly with our schedule, with Grayling, Harbor, Boyne and Kalkaska, those are four real tough games. We're just going to take them one at a time. And it's going to be a lot of fun to play four games that will probably last all four quarters."
While today's games won't decide the league title, one game stands out as the Vikings visit Elk Rapids.
"This is a big one for us," Grayling coach Tim Sanchez said. "Ever since coach Schindler took over at Elk Rapids, he's done a remarkable job. He's really given us fits. They've had our number for quite awhile. They do a great job defensively and (defensive coordinator Kevin) Westrick does a great job game-planning for us. We have a ton of respect for them and their program, and we know we're going to have to play our best game and be as disciplined as possible to have a chance to pull out a victory."
Respect between the two teams is mutual.
"Coach Sanchez has really done a great job," Schindler said. "Those guys have been at the top of the conference every year. They've consistently made the playoffs and I have a lot of respect for what he's doing over there."
Both teams have been dominant on both sides of the ball. Through five games, they're both averaging more than 30 points on offense. The Vikings (5-0) are giving up 16 points a game, while the Elks (3-2) only surrender 11.8.
"Our offense has gotten better, but defensively we've given up the least amount of points at this point since we've been in Elk Rapids," Schindler said. "So we have confidence in our defense. We're a little banged up right now, but those are two good things. Our offense is starting to take shape and our defense has been fairly solid."
Grayling comes into the game after a number of close victories. The Vikings have three come-from-behind wins, including a 35-21 victory over Harbor Springs last week. And while they led the entire way against St. Francis two weeks ago, the 28-20 win was a tight game.
"That hasn't really been the case here in years past," Sanchez said. "We've usually had one or two close games and the rest we've been able to handle them. But this year, the league is so much improved that we've had a lot of close games. It's really tested the kids' will to win. With us being so young, that would typically be a worrisome point, but we've been real happy with the way the kids have responded to adversity."
Today's game should be exciting with two different — but dynamic — offenses.
"(Grayling runs) a very different type of offense," Schindler said. "And their defense is extremely different. They send eight guys. Sometimes more. So with that type of defense, you have big plays all over the place. Either they make a big play or we make a big play. And with their offense, they're never out of the game."
Vikings quarterback Jake Swander has already thrown for 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns. Tyler McClanahan has hauled in 34 catches for nearly 500 yards.
Elk Rapids will counter with a quick attack, including running back Thais Grays — a state medalist in the 100-yard dash.
"Their speed," Sanchez said when asked for Elk Rapids' strength. "It jumps right out of the film at us. We know they're really fast and they're going to for sure have the fastest kid on the field if not the two fastest on the field with their quarterback and running back. We know we're going to have to take great pursuit angles and do good team tackling. You can't assume one guy is going to make a tackle, we're going to have to do some gang tackling."