HAWTON – Brian Irizarri loves football.
In Copper Country, where hockey reigns, he is not alone.
The 38-year-old high school Spanish and math teacher at Baraga High School is in the middle of his third season in organized football as the founder of Houghton Football Club.
“The surge of interest in year-round football here in the Copper Country has far exceeded my expectations.” said Irizarri, the father of three boys.
For the first time, the first spring football season was held in the area. More than 100 children aged 4 to 18 signed up to practice and compete at the nine-acre Houghton FC Football Complex on the North Shore in Hurontown.
Last Saturday, the football club held tryouts for children aged 10 to 14 who want to take their game one step further and play select football rather than recreational games. Irisarri said that he and his coaches selected about 40 young people.
“It was a good show” he told the Daily Mining Gazette. “We are laying the foundation of football here in this area.”
Among those evaluating the players was University of Finland women’s football head coach Thomas Goodman, who is the coaching director of Houghton Football Club.
“Houghton FC is developing a special program based on the development of athletes in the area.” he said, “Creating a foundation for players in the under-12 age group where football will be their main focus, and in turn, find regional football that has more college graduates and professional football players.”
Houghton FC is a non-profit organization with a board of directors and is affiliated with the Michigan State Youth Football Association, the governing body for youth football in Michigan.
“They’re below the level of American youth football at the state level.” Irizarri said.
As a member of MSYSA, Houghton FC joins several other Upper Peninsula communities with club football teams such as the Marquette, Iron Mountain and Escanaba.
“We’re just joining the rest of Michigan with the creation of Houghton FC” Irizarri said. “By having a football club with recreational and featured teams, and owning our own pitches, we can now host tournaments and practice. Now Marquette and Escanaba can come over and have a game-filled weekend like they do in the rest of Michigan.”
Associated with the formation of the local football club is the creation of Michigan State-sanctioned high school football. As of now, there is no boys’ or girls’ football in the Upper Peninsula recognized by the Michigan High School Athletic Association. High school football in Michigan is a downstate sport.
“High school football is a big goal, it’s one of our missions.” Irizarri said. “We want kids to be able to play football for their high schools. We have a men’s college team and two women’s college teams here in our area, but no high school teams. This needs to be changed. So by building our club teams that play in the spring, summer and fall, you create a cycle that builds a football culture based locally and across UP.”
Irizarri said he is not alone in his vision. Since the inception of Houghton FC, he has heard from many parents who feel the same way and are grateful that the future of more competitive football is underfoot in the area.
One such parent is Ian Repp, whose two teenage boys went to audition on Saturday morning.
“I played football most of my life growing up in Indianapolis and came here seven years ago and was shocked not to find real competitive football.” he said. “So we’ve had an advisory league, but the numbers and skill level show that there’s a desire for something more.”
Alexander Labovsky stood next to Repp on the sidelines. He repeated the same thing as he watched his nine-year-old son Matthew dribble a soccer ball through the cones.
“We’ve been waiting for this in the area” he said. “I grew up playing football and we need a program where anyone who wants to take their game to the next level can do it.”
Every Saturday from mid-May until the end of October, football matches will be played on the numerous fields of the North Shore Football Complex. It’s a dream come true for Irizarri, who just wants to share the love of the game he grew up with.
“Among other things, Houghton FC allows players who want to play tournaments to do so, and this gives them the opportunity to improve their game for six months of the year,” he said. It wasn’t always like this, but now.