SAVELA: Portagers’ character shines despite title game loss

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After lining up opposite one another all afternoon long, Onekama and Rapid River did so again during Saturday’s trophy presentation in Marquette: a team on each 40-yard-line awaiting their name to be called to collect their respective hardware, which was stationed at the 50.

The Portagers had just fallen short of a state championship while the Rockets earned their program’s first. Understandably, their moods were polar opposites despite being separated by just 20 yards. But oddly enough, the two trophies looked the same.

Sure, one had the word “champion” engraved on its plate, while the other was designated for the runners-up. But at a glance or a distance, there really was little difference: Same shape, same size, same amount of blood, sweat and tears to attain.

The teams received their trophies, and at the same time posed for pictures: one side jovial, the other somber. Quite frankly, it was a little awkward.

The Portagers, however, should carry theirs back home with their heads held high, because when the sting of the score fades away, it won’t be a scar. Although, it will last forever.

“I’m never going to forget this season,” said Ben Acton, the senior workhorse of the Portagers. “Nothing but good memories: I love this team. I love everyone on it. I wouldn’t want to play on any other one.”

With a 10-3 record and appearance in the state championship, Onekama easily became the most successful football team in school history, dating back to 1964 when the program began.

“Onekama has probably had teams in the past that were bigger or stronger, but I’d be surprised if any team in school history had as much heart as this team,” said senior Jay Sturgeon. “We never gave up. Never said never.”

To the bitter end, that was true.

Despite their dominance through the regular season and in the playoffs, the Portagers never had the lead in Saturday’s 30-18 loss. But they sure fought for it every second they had available to fight.

An onside kick recovery, a late score to close the gap, effort on every down to either gain or stop an extra yard…

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

And it’s the type of effort he’s witnessed behind the scenes.

“They worked so hard in the hours that nobody sees,” Neph said. “Lifting weights, running hills, hard practices in August when it’s hot: All of those things, they were there.”

And any Portager you ask will tell you: They were there for each other too.

“We’re so close,” Acton said. “This is a brotherhood.”

Sturgeon agreed.

“Just getting to play with these guys and being able to go farther than anyone else (in school history) has meant the world to me,” he said.

It takes talent to qualify for the postseason, make a run through the playoffs and kick off for a state championship. But a lot of teams have talent. Something extra is necessary.

“There’s a lot of team chemistry here,” Neph said. “The guys legitimately like each other. They pull for each other and they play hard for each other.

“They’re a very tight knit group and that’s part of what hurts about this season ending: we have to deal with the fact that it’s never going to be the same,” he added. “These guys have spent so much time together and stuck with each other all the way through.

“That’s going to be missing a little bit from their life, and that’s hard.”

No matter if they won or lost Saturday, that was going to be the case for the Portagers. But it’s clear that they’ll carry something very special with them from here on out.

They don’t need a trophy to tell them how it feels to be a championship team. Sometimes, that’s defined by character.

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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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