SUTTONS BAY — One way or the other, Saturday is the last game of the season for Suttons Bay.

The months-long effort will either end in jubilation and an eight-player football state championship or heartbreak and a loss in the title game for a third straight year. The Norsemen (12-0) play fellow undefeated Adrian Lenawee Christian (12-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome.

Whatever way things shake loose — win or lose, heartbreak or jubilation — the Norsemen will still be a success story because of what that team has meant to the two small towns and even smaller schools they represent.

Suttons Bay and Lake Leelanau St. Mary joined football forces in the late 1980s when current Suttons Bay assistant coach and defensive coordinator Stan Pasch was on the St. Mary Board of Education. The co-op has had its ups and downs, but the program has certainly been on the rise since its switch to eight-man in 2017.

The Norsemen have 50 wins since 2017 and have become a perennial powerhouse and state title contender the last three seasons.

“We’ve had some great people and some great community support here throughout the years,” Pasch said. “You can’t ask for a better situation.”

Pasch, who has coached football for 47 years, has a long history with Suttons Bay and Lake Leelanau. Although he has coached several other sports, including volleyball, track and swimming, football is his love and passion.

“Where else would you want to be on a Friday night?” Pasch said. “Football really grows young men more than anything else. It takes a lot of commitment to each other.”

His first stint with Suttons Bay was from 1980-84 before he left for Traverse City St. Francis, where he won a state championship in 1992. Mark Bramer played on that ‘92 Gladiator team and just so happens to be the father of current Suttons Bay junior Shawn Bramer, who scored the game-tying touchdown in Saturday’s 42-36 overtime win against Rudyard in the state semifinal.

Pasch returned to the Suttons Bay coaching staff in 2000 and has been there since. He also taught at Suttons Bay Public Schools for 44 years but has spent the last two school years as the health and physical education teacher at St. Mary.

“I’ve been very, very fortunate to be able to do this with so many good families and so many good kids,” Pasch said.

Pasch said the student-athletes who come out to play from two different schools continue to impress him with how well they come together as one.

“The kids here, they never mention where they’re from. They’re just like brothers,” he said.

The varsity team is nearly split as evenly as it can be with eigh Suttons Bay players — Eric Konsdorf, Brayden Opie, Cam Alberts, Corbin Alberts, Hugh Periard, Lleyton Krumlauf, Ben Murphy and Brayden Schichtel — and seven St. Mary players — Bramer, Dylan Barnowski, August Shaub, Matthew Kohler, Jesse Kohler, Jack Glynn and Nick Dashner.

But that’s as far as the split goes.

“It’s really just one team. We don’t think about two schools. We want to be united out there and play as one,” Suttons Bay junior Corbin Alberts said.

Barnowski, the Norsemen’s southpaw quarterback, said being from two different schools is actually beneficial.

“We can’t get sick of each other because we’re not seeing each other every single day for seven hours during school,” Barnowski said. “We get to see each other for two hours a day and play a game we love together. That helps us a lot. We all love each other.”

Barnowski said they are already talking about how much they’re going to miss each other after Saturday.

“We’re sad this is our last week. These guys are some of the best friends I’ve ever had. It’s a brotherhood,” he said.

Fortunately, they’ll see each other in another sports arena not long after the title game. Suttons Bay and Lake Leelanau St. Mary open the varsity boys basketball season against each other on Dec. 7 at Suttons Bay High School. Many football players, including Barnowski, also play basketball for their respective schools.

“It’s just all fun and games,” Barnowski said. “We know we’re just going to be excited to see each other again and play on the court together, even if it is against each other.”

Suttons Bay football head coach Garrick Opie said he doesn’t even keep track of which player goes to which school.

“I love them as a team,” Opie said. “We’re a team and a single unit. I never try to separate them.”

And the players don’t separate each other either.

“They’re all goofballs and mess around with each other,” Opie said. “They’re really cohesive and together. You can’t even tell there are two different schools out there. They don’t see it that way.”

Saturday could be the day when these two schools come together to win one championship, which would be a first for the program.

“These are both little schools. We don’t win state championships that often,” Barnowski said. “It will be huge for us and for our communities.”

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