Coveted junior linemen excel as Kenowa Hills wins late against TC West

Kenowa Hills scored the game-winning TD, a 17-yard bullet over the middle from Cody Ritsema to fellow senior Dylan Smith, with 1 minute 16 seconds to play, giving the Knights a 16-12 opening night victory over Traverse City West.

That score erased West’s first lead, which came on a TD plunge from junior Grant Balino less than 90 seconds previous, set up by a 39-yard run by Titans freshman Grant Ellison. He had a number of big gains, his high school debut made all the easier by the presence of a future Division 1 guard, Connor Hayes, partnering well with junior center Wilson Unke in consistently opening fullback-sized holes.

Already with offers from CMU, Indiana, Syracuse and WMU, Hayes continues TC West’s streak of offensive linemen that includes Oregon sophomore tackle Jake Fisher and former U-M center Rocko Khoury. Hayes doesn’t immediately wow you physically quite like Fisher. In Game of Thrones parlance, if Fisher is the Mountain That Rides, then Connor is younger brother The Hound — still a renowned killer. There’s little doubting Hayes’ strength for the position. When the 6-3, 292 junior made contact, Kenowa had no push on the interior. One he locked on, it was Hayes doing the moving, helping West pile up 422 yards of offense, 365 of it on the ground. Generally kept his hands inside, other than once when he just tackled a Kenowa defender (no flag). The only time he was clearly beat, it was just an old-fashioned whiff. Would like to see him get lower when run blocking. Hayes’ feet and speed were solid, as a couple times he reached his second blocking assignment. In addition to his four offers, he’s being recruited by Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota.

Game Notes:
*Connor Hayes came into the game as The Lake Michigan Football Report’s No. 6 2014 prospect. On the other side of the ball, 6-2, 240 Kenowa Hills junior Zach Evans checks in at No. 20. If he plays like this the rest of the season, that’s probably too low. This is his first year playing with a hand down. He started at right defensive end and right offensive tackle, and rarely left the field. He moved well in space, got off the line quickly, but can stand to get stronger to free himself from traffic. He had three sacks. On the second one Evans came in untouched from the blind side, forcing a fumble from West senior QB Donny Cizek. 6-2, 200 junior Travis Breuker started on the other end and had a play-making knack himself. 6-0, 195 junior linebacker Chase Dunneback led the team with 12 tackles. 6-3, 180 junior Josh Fransted has good safety size and sealed the deal with a late interception. These four are clearly a defensive group to follow the next two seasons.

*West’s top senior prospect is linebacker Derrick Diver. The GLIAC likes him, with good reason. Diver isn’t an explosive hitter, but he’s a smart, smooth read-shed-and-wrap guy with terrific size at 6-3, 218 and sub 5.0 40 speed. Diver was credited with eight tackles and recovered a fourth-quarter fumble that led to the Titans’ go-ahead score.

*Kenowa Hills dominated the special teams play. Senior kicker Vinner Mendez put all three of his kickoffs into the end zone and put through both PAT. West didn’t convert on three two-point attempts (the “successful” one nullified by a 15-yard chop block) and gave the Knights an early 2-0 lead when a West snap went over the punter’s head into the end zone.

*Traverse City West’s underclassman talent was impressive. Ellison is the starter at fullback as a 6-0, 175 freshman. 6-1, 180 sophomores Zack McGuire was good in cover situations, moving well for his size and age with 4.7 40 speed. The Titans’ top young prospect, one who is expected to succeed Hayes in the offensive line tradition, is still on the JV, 6-4, 270 freshman Thiyo Lukusa.

*He wasn’t featured until the two minute drill, but Kenowa Hills’ 6-1, 180 senior receiver Dylan Smith could be a solid small college prospect.

*Wilson Unke played well at center for West, but unfortunately was carted off the field late in the game with a leg injury.

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