All on the field: Onekama falls short in championship to close historic season

Onekama quarterback Luke Mauntler looks to extend a play as teammate Taylor Bennett finds a block Saturday during the 8-player Division 2 state championship in Marquette’s Superior Dome. The Portagers fell short of Rapid River in the title game, 30-18. (Dylan Savela/News Advocate)

Onekama quarterback Luke Mauntler looks to extend a play as teammate Taylor Bennett finds a block Saturday during the 8-player Division 2 state championship in Marquette’s Superior Dome. The Portagers fell short of Rapid River in the title game, 30-18. (Dylan Savela/News Advocate)

MARQUETTE – One way or another, the road was going to end on Saturday in Marquette, 330-some-odd miles from where the Onekama Portagers call home.

Along with droves of supporters and fans, the team made the long trek with all they had to give in tow. And after leaving it on the field, the Portagers found themselves just short, falling 30-18 to Rapid River in the 8-player Division 2 state championship, held in Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome.

“It was a state championship game: They were going their hardest, we were going our hardest,” said Onekama senior Ben Acton. “They just had the edge on us in the end.”

The loss closed an historic season for the Portagers, who, with a 10-3 record and state runner-up trophy, became the most successful squad in school history, dating back to 1964 when its football program began.

“We thought we were going to win this game,” said Onekama coach John Neph, “so then when you don’t, it takes time to process. Our seniors are devastated. They wanted to go out on top and they almost did.

“But hopefully they realize what an experience they had and what they’ve led this program to become,” he added. “We left it all on the field today, but came up a little bit short.”

While the Portagers were making their debut on the grand stage, Rapid River was playing in its third 8-player state championship as a program.

Uncharacteristic mistakes seemed to slow Onekama’s offense down early while the Rockets were methodical in moving the chains and maintaining possession of the ball.

“We made some big mistakes at the wrong times,” Neph said, “whether it was a missed assignment or a penalty. And Rapid River just kept the ball moving down the field.

“We couldn’t get them off to get our offense going enough times.”

The teams traded scoreless possessions to open the game, but then Rapid River struck first with an 11-play drive capped by running back Tyler Sundling’s 22-yard touchdown run with 1:09 remaining in the first. A successful 2-point try made it 8-0 in the Rockets’ favor to start the second quarter.

Despite a holding call that put Onekama in a second-and-20 situation on its own 41-yard line, quarterback Luke Mauntler heaved a 59-yard touchdown strike to receiver Rylan Clarke at 9:25 in the second to close the gap to 8-6. Mauntler finished the game 4-of-11 passing for 122 yards through the air.

Rapid River responded with another sustained drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Rockets quarterback Brent Lundquist to Nate Olson to make it 16-6, following another successful 2-point try, with 2:02 remaining in the half.

Onekama only ran 11 plays from scrimmage in the third quarter, while Rapid River managed to put another score on the board: a 4-yard touchdown run by back Gunner Larson at 7:31 to make it 22-6.

In total, the Rockets possessed the ball for over 33 minutes on the night, compared to just under 15 for Onekama. The Portagers’ pair of lost fumbles and untimely penalties didn’t help their cause.

“Honestly, it came down to who played better football,” said Onekama senior Jay Sturgeon.  “We didn’t play our best game, but we did give it all we had.”

The Portagers closed the gap to 22-12 early in the fourth as Acton ran in for a score from 24 yards out at 11:21. The senior running back led the team on the night with 78 yards rushing on 17 carries.

After the score, Onekama successfully recovered an onside kick that just trickled over the required 10 yards, but five plays later the Portagers lost a fumble to the Rockets.

“We were in there banging and trying, and absolutely played to the end,” Neph said. “We’re a pretty competitive group of guys, so there was no doubt we’d be going at it all the way through.”

The Rockets found the end zone again, late, as Sundling scored from 22 yards out with 5:04 remaining in the game. Sundling led all rushers Saturday with 123 yards on 28 carries while teammate Larson totaled 107 yards on 24 attempts.

Another successful 2-point try made it a daunting 30-12 deficit for the Portagers, but they kept coming.

Mauntler connected with Onekama’s Wade Sedlar on a 55-yard strike at 3:55 in the fourth to close the gap to 30-18, but that would be the game’s final score.

“Give credit to Rapid River,” Neph said. “They’ve averaged 30 points a game (this season), and that’s what they got again tonight. And our defense is pretty stout.

“But they controlled the ball and controlled the line of scrimmage,” he added. “I would have liked our offense to get in a few more plays, but we weren’t able to get that done.”

Acton led Onekama’s defense with 16 tackles, including three for loss, while teammates Matthew Mallison totaled 15 , Taylor Bennett 13 and Mauntler nine.

After the loss, the Portagers were understandably emotional but showed appreciation to the Onekama faithful who made the trip to cheer them on. Tears and hugs were shared in a sea of blue on the field following the game.

“I’m so happy for our guys,” Neph said. “They’re leaving this season with memories they’ll carry for a lifetime. They took this program to new heights, and they worked so hard in the hours that nobody sees.

“Lifting weights, running hills, hard practices in August when it’s hot: All of those things, they were there. They really wanted this and they set an example for all of us to follow moving forward.”

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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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