Monday, January 8, 2018

Are basketball skills eroding among young players?

By Blake Froling

We hear the refrain from coaches all the time: “Back in my day…”

You’re going to hear it some more here.

I talked with local high school basketball coaches to see what skills they thought young players were lacking as they reached high school. What did they have to focus on the most in practice? Why is this happening? Most coaches didn’t hesitate in their answer. They've thought about this before and discussed it with their peers.

The overall sentiment I got from these coaches is that mastery of fundamental skills among kids entering high school is at a low point. The skills they focused on varied, as well as the reasons why those skills are lacking.

If you’re a young player looking to play for one of these coaches, you better take notes.

Marquette boys coach Brad Nelson thinks it starts with shooting, and most kids don’t put in the time required to become a lethal shooter.

“I think it has digressed over the years,” said Nelson, “and I think it’s a product of kids going into the gym and playing street ball and not taking the time to learn how to shoot properly. It’s something that takes thousands and thousands and tens of thousands of repetitions, not from the three-point line but starting at five feet, working on your form, doing that thousands of times, stepping back to ten feet, 15 feet.

“It’s a generation that wants instant gratification,” Nelson continued. “They want to see results the next day and shooting is not something that that happens. It takes years and years of experience.”

Other coaches, like Gwinn’s Jim Finkbeiner, saw ball-handling as the most glaring weakness of players today. Not an inability to cross players up like Kyrie Irving, but something as simple as being able to dribble with both hands.

“You get good at doing one particular thing,” Finkbeiner said, “whether right-handed layups or dribbling with your right hand and you want to go everything to your right. The game has changed over time...and you have to be able to use both sides of the floor and go both ways.”

Only being able to go one way makes it easy to scout against you and defend you, a refrain many of the coaches echoed. This isn’t only with middle school players. Some coaches even said they’ve seen a few varsity players have that same glaring weakness, on their own team and teams they’ve faced.

“A lot of kids can sit here and ‘two-ball’ and do things stationary,” said Negaunee girls coach Brandon Sager, “but live ball-handling with both hands is what I believe is the most lacking trait in the game today as they hit the high school level.”

If you’re a high school player reading this, they could be talking about you.

Negaunee boys coach Dan Waterman broke it down into three areas kids have to excel at in order to succeed and move on to the next level, and he used the top players from last year as prime examples.

“Last year’s senior class was really good with Dre [Tuominen] and Trent [Bell] and [Carson] Wonders and [Dawson] Bilski and [Jason] Whitens,” said Waterman. “I look at those five players specifically. They can all handle the ball with both hands...they’re all good passers and they’re all good shooters. Offensive fundamentals, overall, they’re lacking.”

One common theme among those five players, besides their mastery of offensive fundamentals? They’re all playing college basketball. Tuominen is at Bay College, Bell and Bilski are at Michigan Tech, Wonders is at Northern Michigan and Whitens is at Western Michigan. That’s no coincidence.

We can’t forget about defense. Defense wins championships, or so the saying goes. Ishpeming boys coach Anthony Katona sees scores on all levels of basketball rising, and it’s mostly due to a lack of defense, and not knowing what to do in game settings.

“Players could be a little bit more offensively advanced,” Katona said, “but I think knowing what to do in a one-on-one situation and a team situation on the defensive end is one of the things that we stress on teaching our kids and one of the things that we start from the get-go.”

Ishpeming girls coach Ryan Reichel went into more nuanced skills that might go overlooked, unless you’re at one of his practices.

“We see a lot of girls with the wrong pivot foot," said Reichel, "and a lot of girls that don't always line up the seams of the ball as the game gets faster on them as they move up the ranks. I think all basketball players, not just girls in general, need to do a better job of adapting to the speed, but also slowing down the skill set so they do it right, because that’s in the end going to make you a better basketball player.”

Think lining up the seams of a basketball is a trivial skill when shooting? Imagine throwing a ball without using the laces -- that’s what Reichel said it’s like when you don’t line up the seams, and why he emphasizes it to his players almost every day.  

Why are these fundamental skills eroding? Is it social media? Is it AAU ball? Is it just because of those darn Millennials? Ben Smith, Marquette girls coach, thinks kids just don’t play enough anymore.

“That trait is kind of a lost art almost,” said Smith, “where it used to be at Miners Park in Negaunee or Harlow Park in Marquette or the playground in Ishpeming, where people from different towns would get together and play all day and have fun and see who’s better that day, that game or that possession.”

The recipe to becoming a successful basketball player seems pretty simple according to these coaches: Spend thousands of hours working on your shooting form; line up the seams when you shoot; make sure you use the correct pivot foot; make crisp passes; learn how to dribble with both hands; play defense; and most importantly, go outside and play with your friends.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Lions are locked in, for better or worse

By Blake Froling

A sudden realization hit us during Monday's episode of the SportsPen.

Sam Ali from ABC 10 and I were talking about the Lions, and how the expectation was that they need to make the playoffs and win a game. Then, Sam asked me, "Who gets fired if they don't? Does anyone?"

Well, surely someone has to be blamed, right? Someone has to go if they fall short of expectations once again. But who?

The Lions basically locked themselves into this core of coaches and players for the foreseeable future. Head coach Jim Caldwell signed a multi-year extension before the season started (but didn't tell anyone), so firing him would cost the team millions of dollars.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford surely isn't going anywhere after signing the richest contract in NFL history this offseason. He's also the best quarterback in the history of the franchise, so don't even think about it.

Can you blame offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter? He's been handcuffed by one of the league's worst rushing attacks all season. Firing Cooter would accomplish nothing when he can basically work with only half the playbook. Just weeks ago he was the darling of the NFL and some even whispered his name among those poised to become head coaches in the very near future. Now those same people blame his playcalling for the Lions' first-half woes.

What about defensive coordinator Teryl Austin? Nope. His defense has been decimated with injuries to the defensive line and linebackers, so the blame shouldn't fall on the scheme. Austin's name perennially comes up during hiring season in the NFL, and is again linked to another head coaching job, this time with Arizona State. No one blames Austin.

General manager Bob Quinn is only in his second season with the team, far too short a time-frame to judge his performance.

Quinn's strategy from day one has been to make a series of smaller moves to steadily improve the overall roster instead of overhauling it overnight. He has signed three higher-tier players in wide receiver Marvin Jones and offensive linemen TJ Lang and Rick Wagner, but overall his signings have been fairly conservative.

His drafting has been graded highly thus far. According to my non-scientific opinion, 10 out of 19 of Quinn's draft picks have made some kind of impact, and two more could in the future but have been held back by injuries.

Quinn has not been blamed for much of anything in his tenure, but one glaring error that falls squarely on his shoulders is the running game. Anyone who has watched the Lions the last four years knew the run game needed to be improved. Sign someone. Draft someone. Do something! Quinn did nothing, and now the Lions have the 30th-ranked rushing offense. Eight rookie running backs are averaging more yards per carry than Ameer Abdullah. This is the year of the rookie running back and the Lions missed out, because of Bob Quinn.

Is this a fireable offense? Not yet. The overall depth of the roster has improved and the drafting has improved. For now, Quinn is safe.

One thing to keep in mind as well is that the season isn't even over yet, even though this sounds more like a postmortem on another failure. Detroit has five games remaining, four of them against opponents with a losing record. At 6-5, they'd need to go at least 4-1 to have a shot at making the playoffs. That's doable. But that's only part of the equation.

The Lions also need to win a playoff game. No more "wait until next year" anymore. I said it at the beginning of the season and I still say it now, if the Lions don't win a playoff game, the season is a failure. Plain and simple.

All of this leads me back to my original question. What happens if the Lions fall short of those expectations, as Sam Ali expects them to? Who is gone? Stafford? Caldwell? Cooter? Austin? Quinn?

Nothing of significance will happen. No one of importance will be fired or let go.

They might fire some assistants and not re-sign a couple guys, but for the most part everything will remain the same. This means either the Lions finally have some stability in their organization, or it's just the Same Old Lions. Only time, and results, will tell us which.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Pistons season preview

By Blake Froling

We all know where the Pistons stand in the NBA hierarchy: not good enough to win a title, not bad enough to get a top-3 pick in the draft. Most likely, the Pistons won't inch any closer to either of those extremes this season. That doesn't mean you still can't enjoy the race for the playoffs, even if that means a likely first-round exit. Here are three questions that will be answered in the coming months.

Who will finish more games? Ish Smith or Reggie Jackson

On paper, Jackson is a better point guard than Smith. But knee problems and lack of chemistry made the Pistons worse off when Jackson was on the floor than when Smith ran the point. For the Pistons to be legitimate contenders, they need a fully healthy Jackson to be able to run the pick-and-roll with Andre Drummond and to be that fourth quarter "closer," something that is not Smith's specialty. That would be in a perfect world. We don't live in a perfect world.

Smith has been the best performer on the team during the preseason and said he worked with Tim Hardaway during the offseason to improve his game. He couldn't shoot to save his life last year (47.7 percent true shooting percentage, 362nd in the NBA), but maybe that offseason work will improve his numbers. Players seemed to enjoy being on the floor with Ish more than Reggie last year, and the tension in the locker room was well documented. 

I think Ish will take that next step and become a better option at the point than Jackson. This will allow Stan Van Gundy to rest Jackson during the second night of a back-to-back or to restrict his minutes and keep him fresh. That all adds up to Smith starting more games than Jackson. However, the really intriguing thing to look for is who finishes more games. That's when you find out who SVG trusts in clutch situations. I think that will be Smith.

Check out Blake's interview with Detroit News Pistons writer Rod Beard here.

Can Avery Bradley stay healthy?

The most important offseason addition for the Pistons was clearly Avery Bradley. He's essentially the same player as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who signed with the Lakers in free agency, only better. Bradley is widely regarded as one of the top perimeter defenders in the NBA and posted career highs in points, rebounds and assists last season with Boston. The only problem was that he missed 27 games with a strained Achilles. 

Bradley has never played all 82 games in a season and has missed a combined 109 games in the last six seasons. With another injury-prone guard in Jackson, the Pistons need Bradley to be the constant in the backcourt; Someone who can play with both Jackson and Smith but more importantly, just play a whole season. KCP only missed an average of 3.25 games per season in four years, and the Pistons need Bradley to be that consistent as well. 

In Detroit, Bradley has an opportunity to have a career year. He can now be the centerpiece of the offense for the first time ever. He's been used to playing with Isaiah Thomas, a ball-dominant guard, and before him the Big Three of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. In Detroit, he can be leaned on as the go-to scorer in clutch situations, and I expect him to thrive. The only question will be if he can stay on the floor.   

Will Andre Drummond become elite?

Haters will say this is impossible. They'll be silenced when LeBron picks Andre to be on his team in the new All-Star draft. They'll be silenced when he shoots over 50 percent from the free throw line. I can't wait to silence the haters.

If you can't tell, I'm all aboard the Drummond bandwagon. 

He's already an elite rebounder -- he led the NBA in rebounding percentage last season. He's got all the physical tools to become the most dominant post presence in the NBA. Andre's also only 24 years old, still not even in his prime. His performance seemed to dip last season, in large part due to the absence of his pick-and-roll buddy Jackson. A lack of  decent shooters around him also limited his open looks. And we can't ignore the often-horrifying attempts at hook shots and other inefficient post moves too far away from the rim. 

This year, Drummond came into camp 30 pounds lighter and with two working nostrils. This should allow him to play with higher energy and intensity, something that was perhaps his second-biggest downfall last year. This should also help with his effort level on defense, which made him a liability last season. A man with his physical gifts and raw athleticism should never be a liability on defense.

Drummond's main downfall, obviously, was his horrendous free throw percentage, which was the worst in the NBA. In the preseason, Drummond made me and other Pistons fans giddy with anticipation as he sank 80 percent of his shots from the line. Maybe his mechanics changed, maybe his mindset changed. Whatever it was, he might have found the fix. Might.

This 80 percent mark is definitely not sustainable in any way. If Drummond can stay above 50 percent, or even approach the 60 mark, he'll be able to stay on the floor in late-game situations for the first time in his career. Then we'll really see what kind of player Drummond is, and what he can become.

Predictions

Record: 41-41

Playoffs: 7 seed, loss in first round to the Boston Celtics

All-Stars: Andre Drummond

Drummond free throw percentage: 55 percent

NBA Finals: Cleveland vs. Golden State

NBA Champion: Golden State in six games 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lions need 4th quarter mentality all game

Blake Froling

I hope everyone knew it wasn't sustainable.

Matthew Stafford's late-game heroics always entertain us, and eight times last season actually brought the Lions a win. But it was never going to be sustainable. We're seeing that already this year through six games. It's called regression to the mean.

If the Lions are going to be serious contenders, they need to win games from start to finish, and do it consistently. This Sunday's game against New Orleans is the latest example of a team that digs itself a huge hole, then climbs back when the opposing defenses lay off the gas pedal. While Stafford and company should be applauded for not giving up in those situations, it's concerning that they have to do this every single week.

In the Lions' three losses this season, they've been outscored 95-57 in the first three quarters, then outscored their opponents 31-14 in the fourth quarter. Maybe last year those are wins, but those last-second comebacks that seemed to fall in Detroit's favor are now stalling out, and the Lions are 3-3.

If this year is going to be different, if the Lions are going to win the NFC North for the first time since 1993, then they need to show up in the first three quarters. Being a "good fourth quarter team" isn't going to take this team farther than another first-round exit in the playoffs. If that's ok with you, then sit back and watch Stafford chuck the ball around when he's down 21 and see what happens.

If you look at the consistently good teams, the Super Bowl winning teams, they have occasional fourth quarter comebacks, but they don't live off them like the Lions do. Until that changes, they'll never be a Super Bowl contender.

Don't get me wrong, cutting a 35-point deficit to seven like the Lions did Sunday against the Saints is impressive, but good teams wouldn't have been down 35 points in the first place. Regardless of how healthy Stafford really is, that should never happen.

So what's the problem in the first three quarters? Good question.

Right now, the Lions have a paper-thin offensive line that limits the plays offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter can call. Stafford usually doesn't have enough time in the pocket to let deep plays develop. The calls get conservative, the offense stagnates, and the Lions fall behind. Stafford gets beat up in the process.

In the fourth quarter, when opposing teams have the lead on the Lions, the defenses get more conservative and bring less pressure in hopes of avoiding the big play. This allows Stafford more time to throw, the offense gets aggressive, and points start racking up. If the Lions can have a fourth quarter mentality all game, maybe they can be a Super Bowl contender. Maybe.

Part of this will (hopefully) be fixed when left tackle Taylor Decker recovers from his shoulder injury, because Greg Robinson is atrocious. Plain and simple. Getting rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay back should also open things up for Stafford.

Don't bury the Lions just yet, even if it sounds like I just did. The bye week comes at a perfect time. Stafford has the week off to recover from his high ankle sprain and whatever else he's dealing with, the offensive line can heal up, Golladay can come back, and maybe things can go back to how they looked earlier in the season.

The NFC North is wiiiiiiide open with the possible season-ending injury to the Packers' Aaron Rodgers. The four quarterbacks in the division are now Brett Hundley, Case Keenum, Mitchell Trubisky, and Matthew Stafford. Advantage Lions.

Maybe Jim Caldwell and Jim Bob Cooter will spend the next two weeks trying to dissect the first half woes better than I can, and stop relying on the comebacks to sustain their season. Because they won't. And the Lions will only break your heart once again if things don't change.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Lions love, Packers loathe week 2 primetime

By Blake Froling

Two primetime games, two very different results.

It's not really fair to compare the Lions' win with the Packers' loss. Atlanta is far superior to New York right now and let's be honest, the Falcons simply own the Packers. The Giants were dealing with a depleted offensive line that couldn't block me and receivers who couldn't catch the ball. The Falcons looked nearly flawless against the Packers in the first half. Two completely different situations. Let's look at them one at a time.

Lions beat Giants 24-10
It definitely wasn't a pretty game to watch. Matthew Stafford did just enough to put the Lions ahead with touchdown passes to Marvin Jones and Eric Ebron, but threw for just 122 yards. 122 yards??? Did the Lions run the triple option the whole game or something?

Despite his low passing yards, Stafford looked impressive. He continues to surprise people with his scrambling ability, something he was dreadful at during the first few seasons of his career. Stafford also seemed more in control at the line of scrimmage than in recent years, and Jon Gruden made sure to point it out several times on the ESPN broadcast. He engineered the win more with the intangibles than the stats last night.

Running back Ameer Abdullah showed improvement running the ball against the Giants after a lackluster performance against the Cardinals. He looked like the elusive back we saw in his rookie year and ripped off a couple big runs, finishing with 86 yards on 17 carries. Believe it or not, that’s the most rushing yards for a Lions running back since Joique Bell had 91 yards against the Bears on Thanksgiving 2014. There's your sad Lions stat of the day.

The Lions have shown now that they are committed to the run, whether it's successful or not, and they’ll need more performances like that out of Abdullah if they're going to keep defenses honest.

On defense, Ziggy Ansah and company exploited the Giants’ paper thin offensive line and sacked Eli Manning five times. I almost felt bad for Manning a couple times after seeing the sad attempts his offensive line made to protect him. Let's just pretend I didn't pick the Giants to win their division.

The front four for Detroit, which had been maligned as the weak spot of the team going into the season, has gotten to the quarterback for six sacks and allowed just 107 rushing yards through two games. Ansah has already surpassed his sack total from a year ago, when he was dealing with a high ankle sprain. I, along with many other fans, was worried about how Ansah would play early in the season after being M.I.A. for most of training camp and the preseason. Through two games, it's safe to say he's back.

The secondary looked extremely impressive for most of the night, minus one breakdown in coverage in the red zone that led to a touchdown. Giants receivers had no space to work, Eli constantly ran out of time to throw and Odell Beckham Jr was held in check.

That secondary will be tested even more on Sunday when the high octane Atlanta Falcons come to town. They effortlessly dropped 34 points on the Packers and have a stable of talented receivers to spread out the Lions defense. Add in two great running backs with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and this will be the toughest game on the Lions schedule this season. Speaking of those Falcons...

Falcons beat Packers 34-23
I bet if you Google who owns the Packers, instead of seeing thousands of Green Bay residents, you'd get Matt Ryan. At least that's what it should say. Ryan surgically picked apart the Packers' revamped secondary early in the game. I had flashbacks to the NFC Championship game last year where he basically did the exact same thing. I certainly didn't mind.

The absence of Jordy Nelson completely derailed this powerful Packers offense. It's clear that despite having a bevvy of talented receivers, Aaron Rodgers depends on Nelson the most, and without him, things go wrong. It also doesn't help when you have two starting offensive linemen out, and your best defensive tackle, and two members of the secondary.

Injuries cost the Packers a real shot at a Super Bowl last season, and they're already threatening to do the same this year. We still don't know the severity of these injuries yet, so don't jump to conclusions, but if this becomes a trend, they'll have to wait another year to get over the hump.

Maybe this is me reading into things too much, but if the road to the Super Bowl runs through Atlanta again, does Green Bay even have a chance? Right now, I'd say no. Whatever adjustments Dom Capers made from the NFC Championship game to Sunday night clearly didn't work. For all the talk the young secondary gets and how great the "nitro" defense is, will it ever be good enough to beat these Falcons? I have serious doubts.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Week 2 Mid Pen Poll

By Blake Froling

After the hotly debated debut of the Mid Pen Preseason Poll, we're back for more! Here are the results of the week two Mid Pen Poll, as voted on by Ryan Stieg (Mining Journal), Sam Ali (ABC 10), Jake Durant (Local 3), Seth Wells (TV 6) and Adam Niemi (Iron Mountain Daily News).

1. Gladstone (1-0) - 7 first-place votes - 35 points - last week: 1

Last week: 42-0 win @ Gwinn
This week: Friday vs. Manistique (0-1)

The Braves made easy work of Gwinn in their first game, winning 42-0 on the road. Darin Johnson proved to be the explosive force many expected him to be and the Modeltowners simply had no answer. The newcomer to the Mid Pen looks to be perched atop the polls until someone can find a way to slow down Johnson. Expect them to slice and dice Manistique's defense this Friday. 

2. Ishpeming (1-0) - 28 points - last week: 4

Last week: 34-7 win vs. Iron Mountain 
This week: Friday @ Norway (1-0)

The Hematites made the biggest jump of all the teams in the poll. The voters also received the most criticism for ranking Ishpeming at No. 4 last week. After dispatching Iron Mountain 34-7, confidence is high around Jeff Olson's squad. Now they face an extremely tough test this week when they travel to Norway to face the former Mid Pen Knights. Norway crushed Northern Elite (WI) 34-7 in week 1 and they should be a contender right away in the Mid Eastern Conference.

3. Negaunee (0-1) - 24 points - last week: 2

Last week: 51-13 loss @ Boyne City
This week: Thursday vs. Calumet (1-0)

The Miners stumbled out of the gate in week 1 against a tough Boyne City team that made the playoffs last year. They hope young quarterback Jason Waterman can learn from that loss, and in a hurry with a short week. They'll be playing in what could be the game of the week against rival Calumet, who knocked them out of the playoffs each of the last two years. Oddly enough, Negaunee has beaten the Copper Kings five times in a row in the regular season, so this should make for some entertaining football. 

4. Westwood (1-0) - 21 points - last week: 5

Last week: 22-6 win vs. Munising
This week: Thursday @ Houghton (0-1)

The Patriots' ground game was strong against the Mustangs, with quarterback Nathan Beckman and running back Ashton Bergman each eclipsing the 100-yard mark. They controlled time of possession against Munising, which will be even more important against Houghton, who will only suit up 14 players for the game. Many coaches and media members said Westwood could be the sleeper team of the Mid Pen. 

5. Gwinn (0-1) - 15 points - last week: 3

Last week: 42-0 loss vs. Gladstone
This week: Thursday vs. Iron Mountain

Things did not go well for the Modeltowner defense last week, but coach Dion Brown said all the mistakes were correctable and nothing surprised him in the game. He also had to play without his top cornerback Marlin Motrin, who was a all-conference first-team defensive back last season. They play against a more physical Iron Mountain that's short on numbers, like Gwinn, and short on the explosive skill players they had to contain against Gladstone. 

6. Iron Mountain (0-1) - 12 points - last week: 6

Last week: 34-7 loss @ Ishpeming
This week: Thursday @ Gwinn

The Mountaineers hung tough with Ishpeming in the first half, only trailing 12-7 for most of the third quarter before the floodgates opened. Iron Mountain fumbled on three straight possessions in the second half to doom any chance at a comeback. If they play like they did in the first half and eliminate the turnovers, they will give Gwinn a dogfight of a game. 

7. Manistique (0-1) - 5 points - last week: 7

Last week: 49-8 loss vs. Newberry
This week: Friday @ Gladstone

The Emeralds are in a rebuilding phase under new/old coach Todd Kangas and they're getting away from the spread offense they ran a year ago. Patience is key with Manistique. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Young Patriots look to learn from tough season

By Blake Froling


Last season: 2-7, 1-5 in Mid Pen


Playoffs: None


Only six players in the Mid Pen Conference who earned all-conference honors last season are returning this year. Westwood has two of them.


While seemingly every team in the conference suffered heavy attrition from graduation, Westwood was barely affected. The Patriots started six sophomores, four juniors and only one senior for the most part last season, according to head coach Scott Syrjala. The playing time for the underclassmen was invaluable, even though they certainly took their lumps -- a 35-0 loss to Chetek-Weyerhaeuser to open the season, a 30-0 drubbing from Ishpeming, a 34-0 loss to Gwinn and a 28-0 loss to Negaunee to end the season, just to name a few.


Syrjala said he can see the experience is already showing in the preseason.
“I can tell just through our camp here a little bit our kids are moving faster, they're knowing things, they’re a little bit smarter, so yeah it has helped,” said Syrjala after a joint practice with Bark River-Harris in July.


Syrjala also noticed a greater number of players working out in the offseason than in years past, coming in to lift weights as a team year-round. Instead of getting discouraged by a losing season, they dedicated themselves to getting better in the winter and summer months.


“They see how strong they have to be and how fast they have to be,” said Syrjala, “and if it wasn't a good group of kids, they wouldn't have responded in the offseason the way they have.”

Listen to Scott Syrjala's full interview here

One of the players leading the charge in the offseason was Nathan Beckman, who started at quarterback as a sophomore and also earned all-conference honorable mention at defensive back. Being such a young starter last season, he struggled at times, but Syrjala has been impressed with his dedication in the offseason.


“This is a kid that would go in for basketball practice and then lift afterwards,” said Syrjala. “He would ask to come in on Saturdays and Sundays and I’d have to tell him, ‘Becks you have to take a break, you have to rest your body a bit.’”


Beckman completed 45 percent of his passes and threw for 610 yards, ranking third in the conference. He also tossed eight touchdowns and only three interceptions. Syrjala said Beckman isn’t making some of the simple mistakes he did as a sophomore and is ready to take the next step.


“The game is starting to slow down for him, and he’s starting to make his reads and go through his progression,” said Syrjala. “His footwork is getting better, he worked on his footwork in the offseason, and I expect big things out of him this year.”


Westwood also returns three of its top four receivers from last season, which should boost an offense that was stagnant at times. Junior Jacob Adriano caught 11 passes for 144 yards and three touchdowns. Speedy senior Ethan Burke averaged an incredible 24.9 yards per reception and found the end zone three times.


The defense is just as young as the offense as well. Burke, Beckman and Adriano had an interception each, and junior defensive end Sam Gilles earned all-conference honorable mention last season. But their inexperience showed as they allowed fewer than 28 points in a game only twice, their two wins against L’Anse and Manistique.

In a year when the Mid Pen Conference might be perceived as being “down” due to the exodus of talented seniors from last season, it could turn into the perfect landscape for the young but more seasoned Patriots to shoot up the standings. Syrjala doesn't have any specific expectations for his team -- he'd prefer to focus on the little things.

"It would be foolish to say 'well, we can only win six games this year.' You're almost setting yourself up there," said Syrjala. "Let's be a solid defensive team, know our blocks, know our assignments, make sure we're in position to make plays. You do those things, we start little, we keep continuing to build on it, then hopefully the wins will come. And once those wins start coming and if you worry about the little things and break the game down for the kids, then maybe bigger things will be on the horizon."