GAYLORD – The phrase “play like a champion” has been used constantly during the Gaylord football team’s offseason workouts.
It is not only a statement of what second-year head coach DJ Szymoniak expects of his guys, it’s what he expects of the future for the program; the more you act like a champion, the more you feel like a champion, and the more championships you win.
That is the philosophy as the Blue Devils attempt to return to the MHSAA Playoffs for the first time since 2018, facing a new-look Big North Conference, just three conference games all taking place in September and road trips both downstate and to the U.P. throughout the first three weeks.
All that and more headlines an exciting season of Blue Devils football gearing up to begin on August 26. Check out the highlights of Gaylord’s schedule:
New Look Big North
The conference schedule is looking notably less grueling this season.
Two massive holes jump out on the schedule as Traverse City West and Central’s departure leaves the four remaining BNC teams on their own. Now, the Blue Devils' entire conference schedule fits within a three-week span in September when they take on Petoskey, Cadillac and Alpena in back-to-back-to-back weeks.
Gaylord was 1-2 against those schools last season, with the lone win coming in the rivalry matchup with Petoskey that saw the Blue Devils leave with the Jaycees Traveling Trophy after a 10-7 victory.
The new look conference means Gaylord will have an extra week of non-conference play to prepare for BNC games, but it also means they will kick off with the highly anticipated rematch with the Northmen on Sept. 16 at Petoskey.
The Blue Devils host Cadillac the following week before wrapping BNC play at Alpena on Sept. 30
The holes left on the schedule by the Traverse City schools gave Gaylord some interesting options for replacements, and the resulting schedule will see the Blue Devils traveling across Michigan.
After hosting Lake Fenton a year ago, Gaylord will travel nearly 200 miles down I-75 to Linden to face Lake Fenton to start the 2022 season. Then, just two weeks later, the first of the TC replacements come in the form of Marquette, sending the Blue Devils nearly 225 miles north to the Upper Peninsula.
Other road trips on the docket include inter-conference journeys to Petoskey and Alpena and a season wrap-up with Clare on Oct. 21.
Even with the sheer amount of travel, the good news is that none of it all comes at the same time. Even with five of nine games being on the road, the Blue Devils only play back-to-back road games once this season, traveling to Marquette in Week 3 before a trip to Petoskey, their shortest trip of the season.
And, once the trip to Marquette is over, trips largely stay in the Northern Michigan area, making the backside of the schedule a lot more inviting than the front.
Old Foes, New Matchups
As mentioned, the departure of the two Traverse City programs left some holes to be filled on the schedules of all the BNC teams. That, plus a new non-conference foe entering the fray, gives the Blue Devils' schedule a few new looks for the 2022 season.
This season's Week Two matchup features the Kingsley Stags, marking the first time that Gaylord and Kingsley will meet on the football field.
The Stags, a member of the Northern Michigan Football League's Legends Division, have won 10 games or more in three of the last four seasons while making the playoffs in all four, giving Gaylord a great measuring stick early on.
The other two newcomers to Gaylord's schedule include another new opponent in Marquette and a familiar foe in Escanaba.
The journey to Marquette Senior High School is another first-time matchup between two teams who share many common opponents. The Redmen football program is no joke either, boasting back-to-back seven-win seasons entering 2022.
Finally, the third addition to the Gaylord schedule is a familiar foe in Escanaba, though the two schools haven't met on the football field since 2016. Back then, a 27-13 Eskymos win gave Escanaba a 4-1 all-time record over Gaylord.
Despite a 1-8 season a year ago, the program has been solid over the past five seasons, going 28-20 since 2017.
All that gives Gaylord some interesting tests in the non-conference schedule for the Blue Devils.
Aug. 26 at Lake Fenton
Sept. 1 (Thur.) vs. Kingsley
Sept. 10 (Sat.) at Marquette
Sept. 16 at Petoskey
Sept. 23 vs. Cadillac
Sept. 30 at Alpena
Oct. 8 (Sat.) vs. Escanaba
Oct. 14 vs. Gladstone
Oct. 21 at Clare
NOTE: Breakdowns for Johannesburg-Lewiston and Gaylord St. Mary will come later this week.
This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Five road games, new look conference headline GHS football schedule