ESCANABA - Escanaba Eskymos coach Jim Hansen knows a thing or two about rivalry games. The Eskymos (1-5) have a couple natural rivals in the Marquette Redmen and Gladstone Braves and through Hansen's two season tenure as head coach, he is a perfect 3-0 against those two teams thus far.
Gladstone's first-year coach Cody Kangas is about to get a taste of a historic rivalry game Friday night, when his Braves (0-6) come to town for the 97th meeting between the two teams.
Kangas played his high school ball at Manistique where he also coached under his father Todd Kangas. The Emeralds don't have a true natural rival, with Negaunee probably being the closest thing.
Gladstone students hold up signs taunting
Escanaba about their possssion of the Eskymos’ wooden spoon that commonly makes appearances at rivalry events, during last year’s Escanaba-Gladstone game at Marble Field in?Gladstone.
"Coming into this big rivalry, for me it's a little bit of a change," he said. "I haven't been a part of any huge rivalries. There's Negaunee, but when I played, our biggest rival was pretty much Munising."
Still, Kangas is embracing rivalry week fully, and him and his staff are doing their part to get the team fired up.
"As coaches, we can do things to impact the rivalry, putting orange on a tackle dummy and things like that to amp up the kids, get them fired up and focused on the task at hand," Kangas said.
Hansen is anticipating a different Gladstone team with Kangas at the coaching helm, saying the scope of the Braves offense presents a challenge.
"Scheme-wise, they've shown a couple different looks on defense and a lot of different looks on offense, he said. "Out of everyone we've played so far, they have the most (versatile) offense. They're doing a lot and we're preparing for a lot of different things and a lot of different personnel groupings."
Whether by necessity or to become more versatile, the Braves have multiple players capable of playing more than one position. Sam Pouliot and Jared Hunter have both played quarterback and receiver, and Riley Ballard has played tailback and receiver, similar to Escanaba's Cam Beversluis.
"We're very much aware of the guys they have at different spots," said Hansen. "They have three different fullbacks. Sometimes the Ballard kid plays wide receiver, sometimes running back, sometimes wingback. They have different tight ends, quarterbacks, we're aware of what they're trying to do - get mismatches, find people in space, and we're paying attention to that on film."
To this point, it just hasn't all come together yet for the Braves, but Kangas is being patient, knowing that will come with time. For now he's settling with flying under the radar.
"I'd love to be the big dog, doing stuff right like a Menominee, Kingsford or Ishpeming," he said. "But for now, I don't mind being the underdog. I want to take down those bigger teams and we're going to try and do it this week at Escanaba."
Kangas plans on using the full extent of his big playbook to do it.
"Everything goes in a rivalry game, trick plays, fake punts, whatever is in the playbook we'll throw at them," he said. "As a coach, I like a versatile offense so opponents won't know what's going to come at them the next week. We've already run through 4-5 different offensive sets and we've only played six weeks. Esky will see another set from us that they haven't seen before. We'll see how it does against their defensive front."
In a victory over Marquette earlier this season, the Eskymos offense was working like a well-oiled machine, striking both quickly and efficiently. But in many of the Eskymos losses this season, there's been hiccups, a player out of place either on the offensive or defensive side of the ball, or blocking that hasn't been there, and things got derailed.
"We need to do a lot of things better offensively," he said. "It's not that simple where it's one guy. We have to block better, run better, be better with snaps and fakes, we need better perimeter blocking from receivers.
"We've been our own worst enemy. Basically, we're playing pretty good defense. On offense, we can get things rolling, but we're our own worst enemy with missed assignments and penalties. We need to stop the self-inflicted wounds and avoid big mistakes on defense. With defense, when you're playing a talented team, it only takes one mistake and the scoreboard changes. There has to be 11 guys doing the same thing at the same time."
Though Escanaba has a strong passing attack with Travis Heller at quarterback and a very good receiver in Beversluis, Kangas is first focused with stopping the run.
"They're a spread team, which you don't see very much in the U.P. I watched them against Country Day and they held their own against a big Detroit school. They're a very talented team and well-coached. It's going to be stopping the run first, which we haven't done this year, but we're up to the challenge. We can't be giving up 35 points a game. I told the guys that and they took it to heart. The defense is going to work the rest of the year. They're ready to go."
And as for the records, of course when it comes to this game, Hansen said you can throw that out the window.
"Just like any other rivalry, records don't mean a lot. There's pride on the line, bragging rights. We both want to win real bad," he said. "I wouldn't expect anything different from them as far as intangibles go. I expect them to play very hard, very physical and to play us harder than they've played anybody all season. That's what rivals do."