By MIKE ECKERT
TRAVERSE CITY — When the run came to an end on a cold November Saturday at Central Michigan's Kelly/Shorts Stadium, St. Francis coach Greg Vaughan smiled and summed up the 2011 season.
"I don't think a lot of people thought we'd do much this year," he said.
In the end, the Gladiators did plenty in 2011. They finished with 11 wins and two losses — both to Division 7 state champion Saginaw Nouvel — and won the Lake Michigan Conference in their final year of playing football in the league.
The end of that era — St. Francis had been a football-playing member of the Lake Michigan Conference since 1990 — is No. 6 on the Record-Eagle Top 10 local sports stories for 2011.
The Gladiators dominated the league over the last 22 years, finishing 131-6 in conference games. That dominance is what led other league schools to vote St. Francis out in football.
The Gladiators went 7-0 this past season, their 18th unbeaten league season. And they made the longest playoff run in the area, reaching the state semifinals.
"The team came together and grew the way we hoped they would," Vaughan said. "We went up against the best team in Division 7 and gave them a heck of a fight. That's something our kids can be proud of."
A prennial powerhouse, St. Francis began the year with plenty of question marks. The 2010 season ended with a rare second-place finish in the LMC and a first-round exit from the playoffs.
Then, the only starter left from the school's last state title in 2009, quarterback/linebacker Riley Bullough, went down with a broken collarbone in a Week 5 win at Charlevoix. The injury sidelined the Michigan State commit for the rest of the season.
The Gladiators recovered and eventually won the league in their farewell season with a thrilling 20-19 win over Grayling in Week 9 at Thirlby Field.
"Winning the conference for the last time was the icing on the cake," Vaughan said. "With the progression of our young kids, and the way our older guys stepped into key roles, made this a special year all the way around."
St. Francis will play next year as an independent. That initially created scheduling nightmares, but the Gladiators currently have a full slate for 2012. They'll play former LMC foes Grayling, Elk Rapids, Boyne City and Charlevoix, along with northern Michigan schools Kingsley, Gaylord and Glen Lake. State goliaths Saginaw Nouvel and Muskegon Catholic Central round out the schedule.
"What makes it tough is having Gaylord as a Class A team and Muskegon Catholic as a great Class D team," Vaughan said. "When you're an independent, you can find games, but they don't always make sense. Really, you can get six or seven games, it's the last two or three that are really tough."
St. Francis will return several key players in 2012, as seven sophomores saw significant action this past fall.
Meanwhile, the Lake Michigan will move on without St. Francis. Elk Rapids will look to return to the top of the league, which it won in 2010. And Grayling will be seeking its first league title after finishing second this past year.