By Ron Pesch

NORTON SHORES–An integral player in the upcoming football season at Mona Shores went down to injury this summer.

The S.S. Badger, a historic ferry shuttling daily between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wisc., was knocked out of commission for the remainder of the sailing season when a counterweight structure on the port side of the ship’s ramp system collapsed on July 21. While initial reports were optimistic, ultimately, engineering and construction contractors found that repairs would take months. On Aug. 1, because of those extensive complications, Interlake Maritime Services, the parent company of the Lake Michigan Carferry, canceled the remaining scheduled crossings for the year.

The ship can accommodate 600 passengers and 180 vehicles and traditionally runs until late October. The difficult decision altered plans for many individuals. Among those planning a roundtrip was the Mona Shores Sailors’ football team, which is scheduled to play Lincoln High School of Manitowoc on Friday, August 25 on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan.

“When it first went down,” said Mona Shores head coach Matt Koziak, speaking of the ramp collapse, “we thought it was going to be good to go by Aug. 6. That’s when they (initially) thought it would be fixed by.”

An immediate alternative to the ferry was to bus around the Big Lake.

“The drive is not horrible. It’s about six hours,” said Koziak, discussing the alternative of chartering a bus to make the trip.

The cross-lake matchup
Thanks to the efforts of Lincoln coach Greg Enz, the two teams scheduled a home-and-home series that kicked off in 2022 when the Lincoln squad took the Badger across the lake, then traveled down from Ludington to Greater Muskegon for the season opener with the Sailors. Mona Shores won that first-ever meeting between the schools, 48-20. The victory marked Matt Koziak’s 100th win as head coach at Shores.

Manitowoc is nearly a straight shot across Lake Michigan from Ludington. Once known for shipbuilding, the team nickname, ‘Ships’, is a play on that history. Located about 40 miles south of Green Bay, home of the National Football League’s storied Packers, Lincoln High School hosted its first football team in the fall of 1910. Like Michigan, Wisconsin didn’t sponsor football playoffs until the mid-1970s. 

Another Midwest blue-collar town, the program was outstanding in the mid-80s, posting a Wisconsin state record of 48 straight victories while earning three straight Division 1 state championships between 1984 and 1986 under Coach Ron Rubick. A 1960 graduate of Manistique High School in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Rubick had played college ball at Michigan State under Duffy Daugherty. Lincoln’s football field is named in his honor.

Rubick’s top player was Don Davey, a 1986 graduate and a multi-sport star at Lincoln. He later earned four-time Academic All-America honors at the University of Wisconsin, then played eight seasons in the NFL, first with Green Bay then with Jacksonville.

The Ships found outstanding gridiron success in the early 2000s under Coach John Dixon, qualifying for the state playoffs in nine of 10 seasons. Dixon passed away in November 2014 at the age of 56 following a short battle with pancreatic cancer.

Enz took over the program in 2019.

“They’ve had some down years,” stated Koziak, “and (Enz) is trying to bring back some excitement to the program. This is really his brainchild. I believe he reached out to Muskegon (and) he reached out to us … We just happened to be coming out of a contract, so we had a Game 1 open.”

A unique experience saved

“On the Wisconsin side is this wonderful lady who has helped us out tremendously,” Koziak said, expressing his gratitude and excitement. “Her name is Ran Thomas. She made some calls and so now we’re taking the Lake Express (ferry). (It’s) a little more pricey, but the Lake Express came up big time. They knew that we’re a high school and our budget is what it is. It’s a little bit more than we planned on. They really came through … I wouldn’t say it was (quite) the 11th hour, but pretty close to it.“

The Badger takes about 4 hours to get across Lake Michigan. The Lake Express departs daily from Muskegon and takes about 2½ hours, but comes into port in Milwaukee. That makes things easier for the Sailors when they leave home, but the team is still faced with the need to make that 80-mile drive up north to Manitowoc once they dock. Lincoln was faced with the same challenge last year following their trip across the lake. 

“What Manitowoc is doing for us,” Koziak explained, “is once we get to the Wisconsin side, their buses are our buses. They’ll take us wherever we need to go. We kind of did that for them last year as well. So, yes, everything is still on, and we’re just so thankful that it has worked out.”

Both schools have conducted fundraisers to help offset costs tied to this unique opportunity. And Koziak certainly recognizes that past performance is no guarantee of future results.

“They’re very similar to us in what they have returning. They lost half their kids to senior graduation. They’re a bigger school than us – they’ve got approximately 1,500 kids. We’ve got about 1,200 something. We know we can’t dwell on what happened last year because obviously, these are two totally different teams. It should be a great matchup.

“It’s super fun. I’m looking forward to it. I took all of my seniors on my pontoon on the last day of conditioning, and I was amazed. Out of the 14 seniors, I think we had six of them that never had been on a boat before. So, I’m anxious and curious to see how they handle that big boat going across the Big Lake because we were just kind of floating around on my pontoon on Mona Lake.

“That’s why we’re going up Thursday, just in case kids do have any issues with not feeling well on the boat and they have any motion sickness or anything like that. I’m super excited for our kids.

The experience will also be a unique one for Koziak.

“I’ve been on the Big Lake,” added the Sailor coach, “but I’ve never taken a ferry. I’ve never been on the Badger or the Express.”