Rivalry Revisited: Onekama, Brethren continue rich history with regional title on the line

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Separated by just 13 miles and two shades of blue, Onekama and Brethren may have more in common than they do differences.

But don’t let that get in the way of a good battle.

The two share one of Manistee County’s richest rivalries on the football field, and on Friday it will be revisited.

“Both schools have respect for each other,” said Brethren coach JJ Randall. “But when it’s game time: both schools want to beat each other.”

The teams will kick off at 7 p.m. at Onekama on Friday, and this time the stakes go beyond bragging rights. A regional championship and berth in the state’s 8-player Division 2 semifinals are on the line…

A fitting revival for the longtime rivals.

DEBUTING TOGETHER

Jim Taylor remembers the first meeting well. In fact, the game’s first play is imprinted in his brain.

After coaching stints at Jackson Lumen Christi (which was then Jackson St. John’s) and Mount Pleasant, Taylor moved to Onekama to teach and start the school’s first football program, with help from friends Carl Foster and Jim Anderson.

It was 1964 and the school had no football equipment to speak of. Taylor had to track down used gear to outfit his first players, and while they had enough practice jerseys to go around, there was a problem.

“We needed numbers (on the jerseys),” Taylor explained, “so we got old basketball jerseys to put over the top.”

Makeshift jerseys and all, Onekama hit the field for its inaugural game on Oct. 30, 1964. Lining up opposite the Portagers was another small Manistee County school making its gridiron debut: The Brethren Bobcats.

“That started the rivalry,” Taylor said. “Both teams’ very first game.”

Onekama went on to win the bout, 25-13, but Taylor specifically remembers the opening kick.

“Ted Werle ran it back 88 yards for a touchdown,” he said proudly. “Since our opening kickoff, it’s been nothing but great memories for me.”

MORE THAN NUMBERS

Onekama and Brethren met 49 more times after that inaugural game, as it became an annual tradition until just recently.

The lengthy series is weighted heavily in the Portagers’ favor with 40 wins for Onekama, nine for Brethren and a 14-14 tie in the season opener of 1969.

No matter the final score, the games have always carried a little extra weight.

“I can’t speak for them, but for Brethren, that was the game that we always circled on the calendar,” said Alvin Rischel, a former player and coach for the Bobcats’ program. “When that schedule came out, you’d always look to see what week you’re playing Onekama.”

Rischel, a 1996 Brethren graduate, played four years for the Bobcats as a high schooler and then later joined the coaching ranks. He was named the school’s first middle school coach in the late 1990s, jumped to junior varsity in 2002 and took the reins of the varsity program in 2012, before stepping down after the 2017 season.

“Our players always knew their players, and their players knew ours,” he said of the Portagers. “There’s been times when some are even related to each other. That’s how close this rivalry is.

“You knew it was going to be a battle every year,” he added. “Even when we had some down years at Brethren, Onekama always got our best effort.

“And any time we beat them, players and the coaches walked around with their chest puffed out a little bit. It definitely meant something.”

Jim Hunter, who succeeded Taylor as Onekama’s head coach from 1989 to 2016, felt the energy change for the rivalry games as well.

“While there wasn’t a traveling trophy or anything that went with it, it was a real rivalry: two small schools in the same county,” he said. “I know as a coach, it was a week I always looked forward to, because I didn’t have to work very hard to get the kids motivated.

“These kids bump into each other all the time, at Big Al’s or wherever else,” he said. “Some take the same classes at West Shore together, and then social media ramped (the rivalry) up even more.

“You didn’t ever want to be on the wrong side of the score, because then you had to live with it for a year.”

RIVALRY RENEWED

In separate conferences these days, the Portagers and Bobcats haven’t met since 2015.

By chance, however, the two will clash again, each in the midst of stellar seasons — Onekama at 8-2 and Brethren at 7-3.

Renewing the rivalry, on top of playing for their respective program’s first regional title, has not been lost on the current coaches.

“It’s always hard fought when these schools meet,” said Randall, who has actually been on both sides of the coin, as a standout player for Onekama as a high schooler and now as Brethren’s coach. “I mean, it’s a real rivalry, and I think it’s great we finally get to renew it.

“Hopefully it lives up to the hype and ends up being hard fought on both ends,” he said. “The importance of the game is huge for both communities.”

“It’s been awhile now,” said Onekama coach John Neph of facing the Bobcats. “We want to keep our season going and I know they want to keep theirs going, so add in it’s a rivalry, and you’ve got one exciting game.

“I hope people plan to get their early, that’s what I would suggest,” he added with a laugh. “I think it’s going to be a full house and the atmosphere will be great.

“It’s going to be a very fun night of high school football for the fans.”

Among them will likely be faces from rivalry’s past.

“Oh I’ve been following them,” Taylor said of the Portagers. “I’m still a football fanatic. And I really hope a game like this can get some interest back up in the area.”

“It’s kind of fitting they’re meeting like this,” said Rischel. “Both teams are going to be ready, I guarantee it. And I expect both sides of the field to be packed (with fans).”

Said Hunter: “The stadium should be rocking. These kinds of games are about as special as it gets.”

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Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

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