Editor's Note - Justin Marietti is an Ishpeming Hematites alum and a native of Ishpeming.
ISHPEMING On Saturday morning, FSN Detroit showed the Ishpeming Hematites (12-1) walking out onto Ford Field to clash with the Detroit-Loyola Bulldogs (13-0) in the Division 7 state championship game. Shortly after the program began, one of the commentators said, "This (game) is being billed as David versus Goliath."
On paper, this was certainly a true assessment. The Bulldogs are a truly massive team, and their average lineman outweighed the Hematites by an almost unfair margin. However, there is a small problem with the use of the "David and Goliath" analogy.
If my memory serves me correctly, David slew Goliath.
All the Hebrews feared the giant, but when push came to shove and David squared off against him, the difference in size made absolutely no difference. Goliath just fell a bit harder than the rest.
So it was on Saturday, as the Hematites fought their way past the Bulldogs 20-14 and claimed their first state title since 1979.
Ishpeming struck the first blow as tailback Eric Kostreva found a hole and crossed the goal line with enough momentum to score a touchdown. However, Detroit-Loyola scored on a fourth down play and added the two-point conversion to head into halftime with an 8-6 lead.
The Hematites put the first points on the board in the second half as well, as Kostreva found paydirt on a three-yard touchdown run to give them a 12-8 advantage. At the end of the third quarter, Loyola faced another fourth down, and once again, they turned it into a touchdown. Heading into the final quarter of the title game, the Bulldogs led 14-12.
But less than two minutes into the fourth, Kostreva crossed the plain to put Ishpeming ahead once again. In what would conclude as a mostly defensive battle, that touchdown would be the final score of the game, and the Hematites finally had the state title they had worked so hard to possess.
As the final seconds expired, player's eyes began to well up with tears and Ishpeming coach Jeff Olson dropped to his knees on the sideline.
Over the past year or so, this Hematite team has seen more than its fair share of difficult situations. Kicker Eric Dompierre and his father Dean had to fight with the MHSAA to allow him to play one more year of sports.
Two untimely deaths also struck the community with a difficult blow to handle. In 2011, quarterback Alex Briones lost his brother Derrick, and coach Olson's son Daniel had committed suicide this past July, mere weeks before he was supposed to prepare a team to head out onto the field for this season.
According to Jamie Carter, an Ishpeming graduate and the team's statistician, the football team showed up at Daniel's funeral in their uniforms. It was then that Jeff coined a phrase that would be repeated many times over the past year; he told them that if his boy ever made an impact on their lives, that they "do it for Daniel."
In regards to the way that Olson's strength has really helped to make the people around him even stronger, Carter said, "he has certainly changed all of our lives."
On Saturday night, the fire department and police waited for the team buses to arrive in Ishpeming to take their victory ride through town, stopping at the high school to meet with family and friends. As they passed over the hill on US-41 and entered the city, it looked as though the vehicles of the Hematite faithful extended all the way back to Negaunee.
"This is the greatest community to coach in," said Olson. "Just coming home and seeing everybody lined up on the streets and seeing the procession of cars following us in, it was just fantastic and it's a great reward for these kids."
Olson said that this team was like a family to him after all the hardships they've gone through together.
"They stuck by me, they stuck by my family when we went through some tough times," he said. "After the amount of time I've spent with them, they're so close knit and they're so close to my heart. I'm going to remember this forever."
When it comes to his son, he said there is no question that he's looking down with a smile right now.
"I was really surprised by how emotional I got," Olson added. "But these last couple of weeks, I really felt that he was closer. I thank our kids for that. They enabled me and my wife to feel that, and definitely last week at the game, and this week, there were some other powers that were helping us out."
Tony Marietti, an assistant coach with the Hematites, said that with all the struggles they faced off the field, it helped this team to deal with the ones they saw on the field.
"I think that one of the reasons they've been successful is because of all the adversity they've had to overcome," he said. "They've had their backs against the wall with Loyola taking the lead, but they were always able to battle back, because they've been in that situation before. They've been through even worse, so for them it wasn't anything new."
Kostreva, who had all three of Ishpeming's touchdowns, approached coach Olson before the season to ask if he could wear number 11 the same number Daniel wore.
"I wanted to represent the number the best I could," he said. "When I asked coach, he said he would be honored. So I took that, and I ran with it all the way to Ford Field."
When it came to staying focused on the task at hand, Briones said that he thinks everyone on the team was just really hungry for the title.
"We wanted it for the city, we wanted it for our coach, and for Daniel and Derrick," he said. "We know they loved this. Just seeing (Olson) drop to the sidelines after the game was amazing. I'm proud of our team for that."
One of my favorite bands has a song that says, "Faith is all we need to carry on. Strength and unity will be the key to take this journey on." I can't think of any greater example of this than the Ishpeming Hematites, and the success they had after everything their community went through. I was born and raised in Ishpeming, and I have always loved my home town. But I have never been more proud to say I am a Hematite than I am right now; not just because of the state title, but because of the character this city exhibited before the first snap ever took place, and the undying support they've given to the team and to each other since the season began.