Football fans in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association will be seeing an unfamiliar team this fall.
Finlandia University, located in Hancock, near Houghton in the Upper Peninsula, has joined America’s oldest college conference as an affiliate member in football.
“The nearest MIAA team to us is Alma, about a 7½-hour trip,” said Finlandia coach Travis Wiltzius. “Sometimes teams might be like, ‘Wow that’s a long bus trip,’ but that’s how it’s always been for us. We don’t complain about it. We’ve got six away games and the closest one is five hours.”
Being geographically isolated in a new conference is just one of the challenges Wiltzius and his team is facing.
Wiltzius is coaching on an interim basis, thrust into the role after former coach Robert Boss was let go in April after being charged with aggravated domestic assault. Finlandia has an enrollment of 550, about half of the next-smallest MIAA school. Last season it competed with 24 total players, something more likely to be seen at the high school level than college.
But Wiltzius, an Escanaba native who coached at Central Michigan under Dan Enos, says his team will rely on some U.P. wisdom to get it through the hard times.
“We’ve got a saying up here. It’s a Finnish word: sisu. It’s about having grit and a common goal. U.P. kids are sometimes an underrated football source. There are a lot of tough-nosed kids up here, and I want our teams to compete and be tough.”
Along with sisu, Wiltzius will be relying on 15 returning starters. Of the 24 total players last season, 20 are back.
Sophomore quarterback De’Llontae Johnson, who played in high school at Oak Park, is back after a promising freshman season. Also returning are receivers Josh Eve and Tyler Kangas.
On the offensive line, juniors Will Stecker and Wilson Spreier are both back.
“I’m excited for them,” Wiltzius said about Stecker and Spreier. “Will Stecker is such a big kid, 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds. The O-line tends to be made up of a lot of characters, and Will’s the biggest of them all.”
On defense, seven starters return including senior linebacker Dillon Hueckstaedt.
“Dillon’s a tough-nosed kid from the U.P.,” Wiltzius said. “He sticks his nose in the fan pretty often.”
Finlandia’s strength will be the continuity of the players from 2017 to 2018. Although Wiltzius is installing new playbooks on offense and defense, he expects that so many returners will ease the transition.
“Our greatest asset is this group coming back. The congruity of the program didn’t used to be very good,” Wiltzius said.
Wins may be hard to come by. Finlandia finished last in the 2018 MIAA Preseason Coaches Poll. But Wiltzius stressed that this season is about more than just wins and losses.
Eric Coughlin of The Detroit News provides a team-by-team outlook for MIAA teams. (Schools listed in alphabetical order.)
Last season: 5-5 overall, 4-2 MIAA
Coach: Jim Deere, 9th season (52-30, 33-19)
Notable: Last season was a bit of a bounce back after Adrian went 2-4 in the MIAA in 2016. Deere will try to improve upon that with six returning starters on offense, including leading receiver Jerron McGaw, who had 1,233 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns last season. Sophomore quarterback Hunter Hamm will get the nod after starting one game in 2017. Five starters return on a defense that will be led by senior defensive back Chris Adams, a multiple-year all-league performer. Breaking in a new starter at quarterback is a challenge for any team, and Adrian’s success in that endeavor will determine whether or not it cracks the MIAA’s elite.
Last season: 4-6, 2-4
Coach: Craig Rundle, 22nd season (120-92, 82-45)
Notable: Two wins in the MIAA was actually an improvement over the 2016 season when Albion went winless in conference for the first time ever under Rundle. Three or four MIAA wins are possible this season, especially with sophomore quarterback Kyle Thomas. Thomas split time behind center last year, but threw for 1,899 yards and 17 touchdowns. Also returning is junior left guard Chase Bouschor, an all-MIAA second team pick in 2017. Senior defensive tackle Sean Kubit-Miller and senior cornerback Michael Harvey will spearhead Albion’s defense. Kubit-Miller had 71/2 tackles for loss last season and Harvey returned two interceptions for scores.
Last season: 4-6, 1-5
Coach: Jason Couch, 1st season
Notable: In his first season at the helm, Couch is going to try to rely on a more balanced offense. Five starters return on that side, including junior running back Steven Sowa. A contest for starting quarterback is raging between juniors Mason Ippel and Travis Disser. Juniors Dakota Jelinek and Jacob Headlee, as well as senior John Aloisi are back on the offensive line. Five starters also return on defense. Junior Hunter Hoffman had four tackles for loss and two sacks last season. Junior defensive back Max Kretzschmar is back after a promising sophomore campaign in which he recorded four pass breakups and an interception.
Last season: 3-3 (Independent)
Coach: Travis Wiltzius, 1st season
Notable: New to the MIAA this season, Finlandia has eight returning starters on offense, including sophomore quarterback De’llontae Johnson, who played his high school ball at Oak Park. Wiltzius describes Johnson as a good leader who has been holding his teammates accountable in camp. Junior offensive linemen Will Stecker and Wilson Spreier are back, with Stecker providing plenty of size up front at 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds. Seven starters return on defense. Senior linebacker Dillon Hueckstaedt will try to improve upon a season-high 16 tackles against Trinity Bible last season. Downstate teams will be on upset alert when Finlandia comes to town. Kalamazoo College and Alma will be making the trip up to the northwest corner of the U.P.
Last season: 8-2, 5-1 MIAA
Coach: Peter Stuursma, 3rd season (15-5, 10-2 MIAA)
Notable: A loss to Trine was the only thing keeping Hope from an MIAA title in Stuursma’s second year. Junior dual-threat quarterback Mason Opple returns for his second season as a starter after throwing for 1,437 yards and rushing for 533 yards with 22 total touchdowns last season. Six other starters return on offense, including junior center Zach Smith. Senior defensive tackle Ian Gorgenson and end Jake Babb both return after combining for five sacks last season. Senior cornerback Kimani Dooley is healthy after not playing in 2017 due to a torn ACL, and at 6-foot-4 with good speed he has the chance to be a game-changer. If Hope’s fresh faces on that side of the ball can hold their own, it has a shot to topple Trine.
Last season: 1-9, 0-6
Coach: Jamie Zorbo, 11th season (33-67, 15-45 MIAA)
Notable: Kalamazoo has 15 starters returning and a quarterback with at least some experience. Senior Zach VanFaussien started one game last year behind center and has a 58 percent career completion rate. Junior running back Jared Pittman is back after leading the team with 544 yards rushing in 2017. Also returning is last year’s leading receiver, senior Zak Zagon, who recorded 402 receiving yards last fall. The third-leading receiver from last season, junior Anthony Giovanni, is expected to step into a bigger role in 2018. On defense, senior linebacker Jakob Frederick will be counted on heavily after his 1st Team All-MIAA selection last season.
Last season: 5-5, 3-3 MIAA
Coach: Dan Musielewicz, 2nd season (5-5, 3-3 MIAA)
Notable: Seven starters return on offense. Senior quarterback Lane Porter and senior tight end Trent Monroe will have big roles. Porter threw for 2,546 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. The defense also sees seven returning starters, led by senior linebackers Mo Young and Chase Cavric. Young, from Ann Arbor Pioneer, had 51 tackles and two sacks in 2017, while Cavric recorded four tackles for loss. Olivet is young in the secondary and on the offensive line, so Musielewicz’s veterans will need to be great and the new faces will have to hold their own for Olivet to climb out of the MIAA’s middle class.