Former EagleHerald Sports Editor
Editor’s note: This article originally ran in the April 5, edition of the EagleHerald. The Menominee High School Athletic Hall of Fame will induct eight new members at a ceremony on Oct. 23 at Embers 1971 in Peshtigo. Tickets for the ceremony and banquet are on sale. Cost is $25 per ticket. For further information, contact John Wills at 906-863-6887 or 715-923-6880.
MENOMINEE—A state record for kickoff return touchdowns. Two running backs that eclipsed 1,000-yards on the ground. A season average of 39.5 points per game. A regular season conference win to snap a nine-year, 45-game home win streak. Oh yeah, and the first state championship in school history to top it all off.
The Menominee Maroon football team accomplished all of those things with a magical playoff run in the 1998 season, culminating with the Maroons leaving nothing to chance in a 42-6 steamrolling of the Haslett Vikings at the old Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., to bring home the Class BB state title.
Twenty-three years after those players hoisted the state trophy at midfield of where the Detroit Lions used to call home, the 1998 team is taking its rightful place among Maroon legends when it is inducted into the Menominee High School Athletic Hall of Fame at a ceremony at Embers 1971 on Oct. 23.
“That was one of the most elite Menominee High School teams of all time,” legendary former head coach Ken Hofer said. “They had a tremendous record against one of the toughest schedules we’ve had in my time at Menominee. They worked so hard and were a true football team.”
Coming into the season, Menominee needed to figure out how to replace All-State tailback Nate Twork, who went on to play at Ferris State University, and a linebacker core that featured Nathan Petersen (All-U.P.) and Adam Baker (All-GNC).
That isn’t to say the Maroons were searching for talent, however, as they returned 14 letterwinners from the 1997 season including All-GNC and All-U.P. senior wingback Josh Tarbox who rushed for 679 yards and five touchdowns and caught 29 passes for 536 yards and three touchdowns as a junior. Menominee also returned fullback/linebacker Nick Thompson, tailback/defensive back Scott Ries, ends Todd Roach and Dale Olsen and sported a line rotation of seniors Andy Bray, Nash Myers, Tom Vojcihoski, Kevin Smith, Jim Anderla and Allan Mars.
Junior Drew Buyarski—who shattered Menominee’s JV rushing records as a sophomore—stepped in to fill out the backfield with Tarbox, Ries and Thompson and also took over the duties at defensive back where he led the Maroons with seven interceptions. Other juniors to get a spot in the starting lineup were Nick Brukardt (tackle), Dave Lescelius (tackle) and Adam Bebo (tackle).
Captained by Tarbox, Thompson and Ries, the Maroons kicked off their 1998 campaign at home with a 45-25 romp of Homestead (Wis.) in Buyarski’s coming out party. The junior tailback ran for a touchdown, ran an interception back 49-yards for a score and grabbed another interception. Voight also added an 18-yard interception return for a touchdown and Tarbox lit off some fireworks when he took the opening kick of the second half 93-yards to paydirt—a modern day Maroon record. Homestead scored its final three touchdowns with the first offense up against Menominee’s reserves.
“When you combine Josh’s mixture of elusiveness and speed that just equals a problem, and that’s what he was against a lot of teams,” Hofer said.
“After that first game, we saw we had a good team offensively. I remember thinking we really didn’t have a weakness and then we just kept piecing things together as the season went on.”
After putting the beat down on Rhinelander with a 42-16 win highlighted by Tarbox bringing back the opening kickoff 84-yards for a touchdown and Ries hooking up with Roach for an 88-yard touchdown strike, Menominee readied itself for a matchup against soon-to-be Wisconsin Division 1 state champions D.C. Everest.
Menominee hung around with D.C. Everest and went into halftime with a 27-26 advantage, but the second half belonged to the Evergreens despite a 129-yard, three touchdown game from Buyarski as the Maroons fell 55-34, snapping an 11-game regular season win streak after Menominee broke D.C. Everest’s 25-game win streak the season prior. After the game, Hofer recalls hearing one of the D.C. coach’s say how they didn’t plan on scheduling Menominee anymore, showing how much respect the Maroons gained throughout the years.
Any frustration Menominee felt after the D.C. Everest game was taken out on St. Mary’s Springs, with Tarbox leading the charge. The senior wingback went over the century mark in rushing and receiving yards and scored three touchdowns on runs of 70- and 69-yards and hauled in a 66-yard bomb from Ries to help the Maroons out to a 36-20 halftime lead. Ries rushed for 116 yards and Menominee totaled 508 as a team in the bounce back win.
A 41-8 rout of Gladstone kicked off by Tarbox returning the opening kick 94-yards for a touchdown—his third of the season—followed to set up a showdown with previously undefeated Kingsford, a place the Maroons had not won in nine years and where the Flivvers were winners of 45 straight.
Big plays defensively allowed Menominee to take an early 21-7. Tarbox intercepted a pass at the Menominee 18 to stop a Kingsford drive and two plays later Buyarski hooked up with him on a short pass and Tarbox did the rest, juking two Flivvers’ out of their shoes on the way to a 63-yard score.
When it was all said and done, Menominee left Flivver Field with a 41-21 victory, and if there were ever a turning point in the season when the Maroons thought they could pull off a run, this was it.
“Just knowing we could hang with state champion level schools like D.C. Everest and then getting over the hump in Kingsford was a huge hurdle for us,” Buyarski said. “I wouldn’t say anyone ever felt comfortable and I think that was our driving force.”
The next two games were blowout wins over Marquette and Wausau West to set up a season-finale against Escanaba that had playoff implications on the line as the “six wins and you’re in” rule wasn’t a thing yet.
In a game where Menominee was missing two of its starting linebackers, the Eskymos used an off-tackle run that the Maroons could not figure out as Esky’s running back, Jason Braun, had a record setting game with 34 carries for 346 yards and four touchdowns.
Menominee fumbled the ball seven times in the game but still had a chance to win it at the end. With 9:23 to play, the Maroons took their first lead of the game when Buyarski rumbled in from 27-yards out to take a 27-26 lead, but all it took was another off-tackle run for Braun to go 52-yards for the game-winning touchdown.
“The Esky game was an eye opener,” Buyarski said. “Losing that game put doubts in our minds that we were even going to make the playoffs. It made us hungry. The locker room after that game did not a pleasant feeling. No one wanted to feel like that again.”
When the playoff matchups were finalized and Menominee found itself with a first round matchup with defending state champion West Branch Ogemaw Heights in Cheboygan, the players made sure that feeling was not coming back.
If the Maroons felt any nerves before the taking the field, you would never have guessed it once the game started as Menominee put up 21 points before Ogemaw Heights ran a play on offense.
Tarbox yet again returned the opening kick for a touchdown, this time 90-yards for his Michigan state record sixth on the season, a record that still stands. On the ensuing kickoff, Menominee recovered a fumble and after three straight runs, Roach hauled in a one-handed catch from Ries for a 9-yard score.
Another Ogemaw Heights fumble on the next kick led to another Tarbox score three plays later on a 25-yard scamper.
Already leading 21-0 in the first quarter, a Myers sack forced a fourth down for Ogemaw Heights. Thompson wormed his way in the backfield on the punt and got a hand on it, and when the ball came back down to Earth it fell into the hands of Aaron Mars in the endzone to go up 27-0 with 7:09 still left in the first.
Menominee didn’t stop the onslaught there, tacking on two more scores to take a 41-0 halftime lead and the scoring commenced with Isaac Johnson linking up with Richie Smith for a 41-yard touchdown on a jump pass for the final score of 47-6.
“That was one of those weird games where everything went wrong for the other team and everything went right for us,” Hofer said.
After taking on the defending champion in the first round, Menominee had a date with No. 1-seeded Petosky in the Regional finals at the Superior Dome in Marquette.
The Maroons had to work a little harder for this win and even trailed as Petosky scored first on a 70-yard bomb, but Menominee was cool as ever and showed no signs of panic on its next possession, driving 64-yards capped by a 9-yard touchdown from Ries to begin the second quarter.
Shatusky, Myers and Voight all came up with sacks to help stunt Petosky’s drive and that turned into Menominee scoring again, this time on a 2-yard plunge from Thompson.
Petosky was threatening to score before halftime as they got down to the Maroons’ 28, but Tarbox stripped a runner and fell on the ball to stop any momentum.
After a quiet third quarter where neither team scored, Menominee sealed the deal in the fourth quarter with 19 points on two more scores from Thompson and one from Ries to advance to the state semifinals with a 32-6 win.
Buyarski (1,087) eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season in the game, with 196 yards on 16 carries and Ries toting it 17 times for 103 yards. Ries also went over the 1,000-yard barrier in the game, only unlike Buyarski, he did it with his arm instead of his legs. The Maroons’ defense held Petosky’s 1,000-yard rusher to just 26 yards on 10 carries and outgained Petosky 511-173.
“One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle for us that year was Scottie Ries,” Buyarski said. “I don’t remember him playing football before and he wasn’t initially out for the team at the beginning of the year, but that addition of a serious passing threat is what really made our offense as good as it was.”
The state semifinals meant another trip to the Superior Dome for a matchup against Grand Rapids Catholic Central, and while the Cougars size may have been unusual for the Maroons to see, Menominee pounded the ball on the ground all game to the tune of 347 rushing yards (399 total).
“I remember being on the field when Grand Rapids came out and I thought they looked like a small college team,” Hofer said. “They were big, but once we got on the field and lined up against them we beat them to the spots and our offensive line was huge for us.”
To show a little more about how good the Maroons’ offensive line performed, after the game a GRCC coach said, “Menominee’s blocking was a thing of beauty to watch.”
Shatusky and Bray gobbled up GRCC’s running back for an 8-yard loss and forced a fumble that was recovered by the Maroons, leading to a 7-play, 46-yard scoring drive set up by a 27-yard counter run from Tarbox for Thompson to blow through the middle for a 1-yard score.
GRCC answered with a touchdown to tie the game but Menominee regained the lead on the next possession thanks to Buyarski keeping the drive alive with a 24-yard run on third and 15. Four plays later, Buyarski found paydirt won a 1-yard run with 16 seconds remaining in the first.
On Menominee’s first possession of the second half, Tarbox rattled off a 62-yard touchdown run to take a 20-7 advantage and Adam Bebo fell on top of a fumble on GRCC’s next possession to kickstart the chants of “U.P. Power” throughout the Superior Dome. GRCC got the ball back again, but this time it was Buyarski thwarting the drive with a one-handed interception to put the game away.
Tarbox racked up 198 yards on 13 carries and Buyarski finished with 88 on 18 touches to lead the Maroons.
“Those young men played like a state championship team that game,” Hofer said. “Grand Rapids was a very good, sound team but we just did what we always did. When our line dominates the way they did with some of the best backs to ever come through Menominee, we were tough to beat.”
With the win over GRCC, that meant the Maroons had just one more obstacle to overcome and they would be forever etched in the Michigan history books.
All that stood in their way was undefeated Haslett, who entered the game averaging 32 points a game and sported star running back Logan Barnhart who rushed for over 1,700 yards on the season and finished his career with 6,007 and 53 touchdowns.
The Maroons struck first on a 46-second drive that was set up by a 47-yard strike from Ries to Roach down to Haslett’s 2-yard line and Thompson rammed in from 2-yards out with 3:53 left in the first.
On Haslett’s next possession, Menominee forced a punt and what came next is still to this day one of the most impressive punt returns in Michigan playoff history.
Buyarski fielded the punt at his own 17-yard line and ran through a wall of four tacklers before getting rocked back with a monster hit at the Maroon 45, but he refused to go down, kept his legs moving and finished off the return with an 83-yard score—at the time the longest return in Class BB and currently the fourth longest in Michigan.
“That’s still the greatest punt return I’ve ever seen and it has to be one of the top in Michigan playoff history,” Hofer said. “He got one great downfield block from Allan Mars that allowed him some space and then he turned on the burners. After that return is when I started to feel a little more comfortable on the sidelines.”
Menominee kept the ball on the ground with Ries, Tarbox, Buyarski and Thompson on its next possession and Buyarski capped the drive with an 8-yard jaunt to take an 18-0 lead with 3:20 in the half. Haslett had a chance to get on the board before halftime, but a 28-yard field goal came up short.
Haslett recovered an onside kick to start the second half, but the Maroons forced a quick 3-and-out to kill the momentum, or so they thought.
The Vikings’ punt pinned Menominee at its own half-yard line, and if there was still anyone with any shred of doubt about the game, their worries were washed away by the Maroons’ drive.
A 13-play, 99.5-yard drive finished off with Buyarski ramming through the middle for a 2-yard score gave Menominee a 26-0 lead.
After a Barnhart kick return touchdown, Ries added a score to Menominee’s total with a 1-yard touchdown run and then shut the door on Haslett for good with a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown with 11:03 to play in the game.
Menominee ran for 244 yards in the state championship game, led by Tarbox with 71 and Buyarski with 68 and two touchdowns. The Maroons set four state title game records: highest point total in Class BB game, Buyarski’s punt return, longest drive (99.5-yards) and least points allowed in a four-game title run (25).
For Hofer, there’s nothing like winning your first title, and he’ll never forget how he felt walking off the field, a champion at last.
“Once we were walking off and I saw everyone celebrating and going wild, that’s when it finally hit me that we did it,” he said. “Everyone knows the first one is always the sweetest, and after winning three of them, I can tell you how true that is.”