SUTTONS BAY — The Suttons Bay football team knew Saturday was more than just another football game.
Sure, they were 3-0 and got lucky enough to find an opponent for Saturday after Onekama was forced to cancel their matchup. But the week that preceded Saturday's 39-20 win over Whittemore-Prescott was filled with grief and agony for many of the Norsemen, especially head coach Garrick Opie and his family.
Opie's mother passed away last weekend and the shockwave was felt throughout the Norse community. The team presented Opie with stickers Friday that read "J.D.O" that they announced would be plastered on the back of their helmets for the rest of the season to honor Judy Diane Opie.
"It's been a huge struggle and a really rough week but I wanted to make sure I was out here," Opie said of the gesture. "They didn't have to do that but they did. They are all my sons."
The Norsemen rallied around their coach and junior teammate Brayden Opie to break an early deficit and run away from Whittemore-Prescott Saturday.
The Cardinals took an early lead off a Dakota Gagnon run and looked like they may be able to go up two scores when Norse quarterback Nate DeVol tossed an interception in the red zone. DeVol took no time making up for his gaffe and picked off the Cardinals pass on the next possession, setting up the Norse to take a 8-6 lead at the end of the first.
"I was down on myself when I threw that pick but I saw my teammates pick it up and really start playing hard," DeVol said. "I really just rallied around them and they lifted me back up."
Brayden Opie set up the first score of the game with a big 23-yard catch that put the Norse at the one yard line for Hugh Periard to punch in. Periard sparked the Norse offense with a big third down run in the second quarter that scored from 38 yards and gave the Norse all the cushion they would need. Shawn Bramer added a score before halftime from 19 yards and another in the third from six yards out.
The Suttons Bay defense did much of the heavy lifting against what linebacker Michael Wittman called the best back he ever played against in Gagnon. Gagnon is an agile speedster who broke off a kickoff return for a touchdown in the third and was responsible for all three Cardinals touchdowns.
"We told our ends that the number one job was containing the outside and getting those guys to push inside," Wittman said. "We have a lot more size in the middle and speed than we do on the outside."
The Cardinals gashed the Norse for several big plays up the middle but were only able to score one more time with just over a minute left in regulation when the game was out of hand. Wittman and defensive lineman Cameron Alberts were doing damage in the backfield, with Wittman racking up 19 tackles.
DeVol and Wittman both said playing the Cardinals was a much needed test because they have been facing teams with spread offenses the last three weeks. Whittemore-Prescott was originally slated to play 11-player football this fall but a decrease in numbers saw they move to eight-player without a schedule intact. They have been filling in across northern Michigan on a week-by-week basis.
"Glad we picked this game up because it was a competitive game and a good hard nosed power run team," Opie said. "We knew we were going to be beat up a little bit and see what happened. The great thing is our guys performed their way out of it."
Periard led the offense with three total touchdowns including a 55-yard touchdown pass from DeVol, who found Periard on a busted coverage wide open. Bramer had 137 rushing yards and two scores and Steven Bolger added a touchdown on 33 yards in the waning minutes of the fourth. DeVol went 5-for-9 passing for 120 yards with an interception and a touchdown.
"Today we were playing for ourselves but we were also playing for something bigger," DeVol said. "We all know it wouldn't be possible for coach to be here if it wasn't for her and she was a great lady. We just wanted to pay respect to her and show him that we got his back because he always has ours."