Outstanding seniors bring Gladwin to Ford Field as a first-time football finalist

Growing up, Nick Wheeler felt that he and his Gladwin classmates could find some success when it came time to oversee the Flying Gs’ collegiate football program.

Bay & ThumbHe just had no idea how much.

“I never saw the state championship,” said the Gladwin senior quarterback and safety. “I saw us win the Jack Pine Conference, which hasn’t been done in a long time.”

Wheeler and his teammates exceeded those expectations and are now just one win away from what once felt impossible.

Led by a strong senior class, Gladwin will play for the first time in an MHSAA Football Final on Saturday. In Division 5, the Flying Gs take on Frankenmuth, who is also aiming for his first soccer title.

“It’s been our dream since we were in high school,” senior linebacker and running back Logan Kokotovich said. “We went to Ford Field to watch games my freshman year and it was amazing. Before high school, we blew teams out of the water. Everyone thought we could be good but we knew we had to work really hard to get there.”

Gladwin Football was in a very different place when Wheeler, Kokotovich, and their classmates entered high school. The program had won just six games total over the past three seasons and had not been in the postseason since 2014.

“I remember going to games when I was young and we always lost,” Kokotovich said. “I would say to my dad, ‘That’s no surprise.'”

Senior Lincoln McKinnon works to get rid of a blocker and move on to GRCC quarterback.When the Class of 2023 entered high school, the Flying Gs received new leadership. Marc Jarstfer took over as head coach in 2019 after being an assistant at his alma mater – and Gladwin’s archrival – Clare.

“I had no idea what was in store for me,” Jarstfer said. “I wasn’t really paying attention to the youth programs (at Gladwin) or anything like that. I knew the current situation. I think in the first year our staff was here we saw that this group had quite a lot of potential. They went unbeaten at JV, with two freshmen playing at varsity. We thought if they keep working hard and doing the right things, they could be very good.”

Kokotovich and receiver/safety Kaden McDonald both played as freshmen at the varsity, and 10 members of the Class of 2023 played as sophomores at the varsity.

This 2020 season, the turnaround started to feel more and more like reality. Gladwin went 4-4, but his three regular-season losses totaled 24 points. It also had a win over Division 2 Dexter, which featured several college prospects.

“That’s when I started noticing it,” Wheeler said. “We’ve been in close games with teams we’ve never been close with before, like Clare and Beaverton. And we were just young sophomores.”

The following year was a real breakthrough as Gladwin clinched their first Jack Pine title in 20 years, 9-0, and won it outright for the first time. Gladwin achieved it by defeating Clare for the first time in 40 years.

Earl Esiline keeps his feet on the icy turf. Then, in the first round of the playoffs, the Flying Gs’ season came to an abrupt end with a loss to the same Clare team.

It was humbling, but also motivating.

“We just thought we were the best,” Wheeler said. “It really knocked us down and made us work even harder for next season to achieve our goal. The trainers put up pictures right in front of our squat rack of Clare hitting us. So that’s what looks at us every time we lift.”

The motivation clearly worked as Gladwin repeated their regular season 9-0 and won a second straight Jack Pine title. This time, however, the Flying Gs were even more dominant. They surpassed their opponents in the regular season by 444-48 overall, with 27 of those points coming in their 33-27 win at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep.

But nothing Gladwin has accomplished could compare to his 28-21 semifinal win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central. The Cougars had won Finals titles in four of the last five seasons, including their last two Division 5 titles. It was Catholic Central’s first postseason loss since 2018.

“Everyone doubted that we were going into this game,” Wheeler said. “Grand Rapids Catholic Central, everyone thinks they’re just the best, but we just took it like they were a different team. We didn’t imagine them any differently. Everyone (on the team) believed. It was probably the best feeling of my life.”

The Flying Gs are now one win away from feeling even better. But no matter what happens at Ford Field on Saturday, they’ve already established themselves as the group that turned the program around.

It’s a feeling made even more special by the fact that they got to do it with their lifelong friends.

“It will definitely be something I will remember for the rest of my life,” Kokotovich said. “This group of guys is everything. We pushed each other so hard and it just all fits together. This is fantastic.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo was a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006 to 2015, including three years as senior sportswriter, and before that he was sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005 to 2006. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Above) Gladwin’s Logan Kokotovich (12) saves the ball in Saturday’s semifinal win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central. (Center) Senior Lincoln McKinnon works to get rid of a blocker and make his way to the GRCC quarterback. (Below) Earl Esiline keeps his feet on the icy turf. (Photos by Mike Kolleth.)

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