Traverse City St. Francis’ football team got the boot from the Lake Michigan Conference, but some LMC teams still want a shot at the bully on the block and have retained the Gladiators on their schedules. Amongst those schools is Grayling, 3-0, which will play host to St. Francis, 2-1, Friday.
Grayling’s early success is somewhat surprising, since they have just three seniors on offense and four on defense. Helping bridge that maturity gap has been the play of junior quarterback Jake Swander, who is in his first season starting but has played like a vet. The lefty has slung it out of the shotgun for 277 yards and three TDs against Roscommon and 301 yards and three TDs (plus another rushing) against Houghton Lake. Most recently, the downpour at Charlevoix didn’t lend itself to sexy passing stats. But this Grayling team can actually do some damage on the ground too. Senior running back Ty Jensen had his second 100+ yard rushing game with three TDS and they won their Lake Michigan opener 27-13. They had trailed 13-0.
Swander has any number of weapons at his disposal — sophomore Scout Tobin, junior Tyler McClanahan and junior Justice Juntilla — and mixes it up accordingly. Leading Grayling’s defense is one of those rare seniors. 6-3, 190 middle linebacker Wes Dean has been the Vikings’ top tackler.
Grayling will face a St. Francis team that, less than a year removed from a Division 7 state semifinal appearance, has yet to look like a vintage Glads entry. They opened the season by getting shut out 18-0 by Kingsley, then beat the worst team in the Big North, Gaylord, 28-13. Their best win was last week against a tough Elk Rapids squad, 12-7. It took two fourth quarter, fourth down touchdown runs from junior Byron Bullough to do it.
What St. Francis may lack in depth this season, is offset by talent. The Gladiators have two of the most highly recruited players in Northern Michigan. Bullough has already committed to Michigan State, where brothers Max and Riley already play. 6-3, 285 junior Jake Khoury is being recruited by Michigan, MSU, CMU, Iowa, Akron, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Wisconsin. While Khoury projects as a defensive tackle and Bullough, 6-1, 2015, a safety or linebacker at the next level, right now they’re also dangerous out of the offensive backfield as a fullback, running back combo. Both are goal line scoring options, while Daniel Gallagher and Jimmy Brady are also significant ball carriers.
Grayling has never beaten Traverse City St. Francis. It’s not like they’ve lacked chances, of late. They met in the final regular season game of 2011, both coming in 6-0 in league play. St. Francis emerged with its last LMC title, 20-19. The year before, it took a final drive from the Glads to win 38-35. Is this young, upstart Grayling group the team to finally do it? It’s a tall order, because even a “down” TCSF team suits up against a Lake Michigan Conference team with a certain confidence that could pay off in a close one.