1. Grand Rapids Christian 13-1
2012 was clearly the greatest season in school history. The Division 3 state champions were undefeated against in-state teams, including a run of the table in the O-K White. There is a budding prep football powerhouse in our midst, one with the infrastructure and talent base to flourish even after USA Today All-American Drake Harris matriculates to Michigan. One with multiple BCS recruits, with offensive tackle Tommy Doles pledged to Northwestern. And one with shiny new toys, like QB Tyler Sigler, late of Jenison, and running back Dominic Paiz, formerly of Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
This status will be tested early. Harris will miss at least the first month of the season with a hamstring injury. While that shouldn’t slow postseason expectations, it sure doesn’t help against the Eagles’ first two opponents, a defending state champion South Christian and runner-up Muskegon. Let’s call it an opportunity for Sigler and company, like senior receiver Dwayne Barfield and senior running backs Paiz and Sam Kuiper.
But what will really give Christian a shot Harris or no, is the D. Last season it was largely “bend don’t break,” no worries they simply out-scored everyone. This time around, the defense should be legit, returning starters joining an influx of young talent. No one has committed on this side of the ball, but there are college prospects on the line — seniors 6-2, 250 Jeremy Stygstra and 6-7, 215 Darohn Scott and junior Juwan Jarengan; linebacker — senior Ethan Badger and juniors Qi’ante Ewing, Jack Bates, Mitch Damstra and Malik McGloughlin; and defensive backfield — Barfield and sophomore Lucas Thompson. Ewing also plays H-back at 6-2, 215, helping the Eagles maintain a diverse offense with tight end Zach Crouch moving on to CMU.
2. Zeeland West 7-4
Had West not been bumped up to Division 3, where they lost a 100+ point semifinal to Grand Rapids Christian, it’s likely that the Dux and not South Christian would be your defending D4 state champion. And it would’ve been back-to-back. Can’t change history here we go again with a John Shilito ground game that can’t really be stopped. Seniors Marcus Lambert, Jordon Lambert and Danny Bauder can all pop 75-yard runs, and 6-5, 290 WMU commit Jordan VanDort will often be unblockable and untackleable. Jordon Lambert was the QB as a junior, now it will be a sophomore Casey Brinks. Smith Saenbouttarah played as a sophomore. and could break out as a two-way starter on the line.
The problem last year? West couldn’t stop anyone, either, when it really mattered. With any kind of defensive improvement, this team is a legit state threat.
3. Muskegon 12-1
The Big Reds’ OT loss to Brother Rice in the 2012 D2 state final was about as compelling sport one may enjoy. Muskegon has two all-staters among the eight starters back on defense, senior lineman Kenneth Finley and senior linebacker Will Hunt. It will need that unit to keep them in games while an offense returning just one full-time starter matures. That needs to happen quick against a schedule that proves when you’re in West Michigan, you can play elite every week — Grand Rapids Christian, Lowell, Rockford, Zeeland East, Mona Shores.
The good news for Muskegon, that one offensive starter is 6-4, 280 senior Malik King, a lineman who has committed to Ball State. He was always good, but looked dominant in Muskegon’s scrimmage at West Ottawa, getting to the second tier and burying WO’s linebackers. And put an asterisk next to senior Deshaun Thrower as a new starter at QB. He did it two years for Muskegon Heights, and then heroically off the bench in the final game of 2012 at Ford Field. He can run, but also gives Muskegon a downfield threat they didn’t have last year. John King was a workhorse back in 2012, The Big Reds have various options now, such as seniors John Hall and Javauntae Thomas, and junior Caleb Hall.
4. Lowell 8-3
Classic Noel Dean team. Not big but disciplined, tough and built to win with veterans of last year’s O-K White runner-up. Their only losses 2012 losses were to a state champion, Grand Rapids Christian, and and state runner-up, Muskegon (twice). Senior Kyler Shurlow took over at QB for the 2012 playoffs, and plays behind returning senior starters on the line Josiah Buys, Alex Kaminski, Zach Kaywood and Matt Ritsma.
The Red Arrows’ defensive leaders are junior lineman Josh Colegrove, already a three-year starter, and DB Jeff Houston, a fourth-year senior.
5. Rockford 10-3
Until proven otherwise by West Ottawa or even Traverse City West in the playoffs, Rockford is on an entire different tier than the Lake Area’s other Division 1 teams. Double-digit wins are a perennial lock for Ralph Munger’s program, which hasn’t lost a league game the last two seasons. It’s in part the Rams’ domination that the Red, not so long ago the state’s top league, might not even be the strongest in the O-K (Jenison, for example, was even worse in the White in 2012, than in the Red in 2011). With an athletic offensive line that is the Rams’ constant and six defensive starters returning, they’ll follow script winning the Red then going on a deep playoff run through and against state powerhouses.
If only life played out like a script. Re-write! Senior QB Chase Hankins broke his collarbone in the first week of practice. So now Rockford has also lost top receiver Austin McKellar, as the junior now has to play quarterback. That puts even more of an onus on a new offensive line to mesh against an early schedule including an opener at Utica Eisenhower then week 3 at Muskegon. On that line are 6-3, 275 Michael Harrington, 6-4, 285 senior Ethan Lussky, 6-4, 245 senior Ryan McAnelly, 6-1, 260 junior Vance Powell and 6-0, 220 junior Derek Scholl. On the other side, no one has a better pair of linebackers than seniors Randy Garvin and Brent Showers.
6. Grand Rapids South Christian 11-3
What a way to end a run of four seasons without a winning one. No sneaking up on anyone, anymore. In an outrageous display of Westside WASP ethos over Oakland County nouveau hype, South Christian ended 2012 with a 40-7 Division 4 state championship throttling of Detroit Country Day. And DCD’s, thus far, four BCS recruits. They did that without then-soph Jon Wassink, the Lake Area’s most talented QB prospect since Montague’s Cody Kater. Even with Wassink, South Christian was far from flawless, but was as a relatively young team that kept getting better after a 6-3 regular season.
Wassink has the luxury of experienced line play in front of him. The Sailors are big and strong on the D line as well, led by senior 6-3, 250 Todd Postma and 6-3, 260 junior Mitchell Quakkelaar. 6-5, 210 junior Sam Heyboer is poised to replace Seth VanEngen as South Christian’s big two-way threat as a receiver and linebacker. To again contend, the Sailors will have to find serviceable speed in new-look defensive and offensive backfield.
7. Muskegon Mona Shores 4-5
Mona returns seven starters on both offense and defense, and expectations are as high as they’ve been in years. Which is kind of a back-handed compliment coming off three straight losing seasons, including a lone O-K Black win. A risky top 10 pick given Mona’s perpetual also-ran status in the rugged regime of Muskegon area football. But certainly not crazy when there’s a potential big-time quarterback.
If you look at the Lake Area’s No. 1 2015 QB, South Christian’s Jon Wassink, he’s like a West Coast prototype. The No. 2 QB, Mona junior Tyree Jackson, plays more of a Bruce Arians, down-field lower percentage higher reward game. He’s got two terrific targets for the fades in WMU commitment Asantay Brown and 6-3 210 senior Logan Smith, two of the five skill starters returning. The Sailors return seven opposite the ball, including all four defensive backs.
8. Allendale 8-2
Allendale was soph- and junior-dominated in 2012, so big expectations ensue. The Falcons are outstanding defensively, and could get past Comstock Park in both the O-K Blue and playoffs. Allendale’s three leading tacklers return, the best of that group Dayton Wierenga, a 6-3, 210 senior rush end who combines speed and technique. He and senior linebacker Colin Beebe both made six sackes as juniors. Allendale returns all the main skill guys on offense. QB Haiden Majewski, WR Nate Couturier and RB Ethan Hovingh. Couturier is a do-it-all talent who could replace Ryheem Stokes as the guaranteed highlight guy in Division 4.
9. Zeeland East 9-1
Tough to find a two-team town as successful as Zeeland. While East hasn’t had the postseason success of West, the past three years the Chix went 29-4 including an unbeaten 2012 regular season. That group could match points with anyone … well, outside of the first-round playoff loss to West. This team will have to win defensively and on the legs of all-state back Spencer Viening as they look for a successor QB to the talented Michael Custer. Viening anchors a linebacking corps with two other seniors, Austin Bellis and Travis Jacobs, that is the strength of that D. Some may have him tracking like Brad Horling, given the alma mater. But the best case scenario for Viening could be the Line Bros. of Oxford and SMU (and now the Vikings for Zach Line). East beat Muskegon in Week 9 to win the O-K Black and go 9-0. On a field full of future college players, no one stood out more than Viening with his aggressive running style and clutch playmaking on both sides of the line. East’s schedule certainly does them no favors. Two other O-K Black teams, Muskegon and Mona Shores, are ranked even higher, and they play Z-West in week 2.
10. Comstock Park 11-2
CP has played in the last two D4 state semifinals. It was a three-year dream run led by the 2012 All-Lake QB Jake Brown (Michigan Tech). There’s a lot back though, and the Panthers will battle young but talented and tested Allendale for first in the O-K Blue and then likely again in the playoffs.
There will be a sophomore at QB, Pat Naughton. He’d be the beneficiary of a veteran line, senior running back Jake Bush and consistent red zone target Drake Baar, a 6-7 205 senior who is the No. 1 GLIAC recruit this year — in basketball. He’ll play that sport at Grand Valley. Bush is a dual threat, three-down back. He was the favorite target of Jake Brown, so fantasy fans expect some falloff, especially in a PPR league. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better pair of tight ends than Baar and 6-3 215 senior Ryan Gruszka. Gruszka will likely be a D end at the next level, and he’s now the vet stalwart up front for CP with Big Blake Mazur matriculating to Wayne State. How about the Warriors’ parlaying NCAA success to the recruiting realm? They now consistently bring in a couple legit West Michigan prospects every year. In 2013 it was Mazur and lanky WO QB Trevor VanTubbergen.
11. Grand Rapids Catholic Central 10-1
A year ago if you said an O-K Gold team would win the Division 4 state championship, the assumption would be Catholic Central. But after dominating the league in coach Trip Gallery’s debut campaign, the Cougars didn’t get nearly that far beat by Comstock Park in the second round. That helped open the door for the Gold team that did go gold, South Christian.
CC had one of the Lake Area’s dominant defenses last season, but return only two starters neither of whom are Ryheem Stokes, the best senior in Grand Rapids in 2012. Eight are back on offense though, including the entire line and dangerous pass-catch threats in senior QB Joe Nixon with senior Austin Gordon and junior Nick Marosi.
12. Grand Haven 3-6
Risky ranking, with that second number. The Bucs’ once potent passing game was clipped in 2012, and they could rarely muster a 20-point effort. The O-K Red is no place to find yourself. By the time you do, well there’s a miss on the playoffs for the first time in a “high school generation,” four years. Especially when the defense isn’t tough enough to keep you in games. We’re banking that changes this year and the Bucs are back in the playoffs, with an improved D and focus on the running game. Senior Isaak Newhouse will be this year’s Ryan Verhelst in the O-K Red, a smooth athlete whether catching the ball from his or the opposing quarterback. The Bucs have some speedy playmakers, between Newhouse and senior linebacker Dakota Juarez. 6-4, 275 junior Chase VanHoef is among the Lake Area’s top offensive line recruits for 2015.
13. West Ottawa 8-3
WO is looking for its fourth-straight playoff appearance, and third under third-year coach Rory Zegunis. The last three postseasons have ended at the hands of Rockford. The Rams have won 13 straight from West Ottawa and could add insult to injury as No. 14 would be homecoming North of the Bridge.
Don’t expect the Panthers’ offense to be as potent as last year, as the line is new while replacing Trevor VanTubbergen at QB and receivers Ato Condole and Ryan Verhelst, all three now on GLIAC rosters. Easing the transition for the new QB — either senior Jared McNitt or his junior brother Caleb McNitt — is an experienced run game of juniors James Lacy and Christian Rodino. Rodino is quick enough to turn the corner; Lacy pure speed who the Panthers hope can defy his size by playing fullback or third-down pass-blocker. Holding it down defensively will be junior middle linebacker Mason Dekker, while senior Alex Zimmerman reminds of Verhelst at times, an all-around safety with good cover skills and steady receiver.
14. Traverse City Central 9-2
Seven seasons after Tom Passinault took over an 0-9 TC Central program, the Trojans won the Big North. For a repeat their deep junior class will have to produce, and a replacement for all-league QB TJ Shepperly found. While TC West gets the offensive lineman buzz, TC Central had a good one last year in Tyler Gildersleeve, and now another college prospect in 6-2, 265 junior guard Seth Tice, who played as a sophomore. Their pair of defensive ends, 6-3, 210 junior Rhys Adle and 6-3, 225 senior Mitchell Wynkoop, may be as talented as any in the Lake Area. Shepperly isn’t the only TJ Central will miss, also running back TC Schwannecke. Junior Ethan Campbell looked good running the ball when given the opportunity last year.
15. East Grand Rapids 4-5
No playoffs? East Grand Rapids? Yeah, that happened. For the first time in a dozen years, since the first season of Peter Stuursma’s hall of fame coaching tenure. That chased a 9-4 2011 campaign which was a reality check after 33 straight wins and consecutive state titles. If Grand Rapids Christian is the new EGR, what does that leave the Pioneers? Possibly again fighting for a playoff spot. The O-K White is real serious, with three teams in our Big School Top 20, as are East’s first three non-league opponents — Grand Rapids Catholic Central, East Kentwood and West Ottawa.
Preseason All-Lake linebacker Carter Masek is the next big recruit out of East. The Pioneers return seniors Conor Conaboy, James Eerdmans and Troy Gotch on the offensive line. They’ll pave the way for an open call at running back, a position from this program that has churned out college recruit after college recruit from East Grand Rapids, most recently Jahaan Brown to Ferris State. Mikey Roth doesn’t have the size of some of the other QBs in the Lake Area’s bumper crop of junior signal callers, but is talented and was a part-time starter as a soph.
16. Stevensville Lakeshore 11-1
Under coach Denny Dock, Lakeshore is just a machine out of the SMAC West. After going 11-1 in 2012, they’ll in near certainty complete their 25th straight winning season and 15th straight playoff appearances in 2013. Expect to see more of the explosive running game that helped Lakeshore average 47.5 points over their last four games. That stretch coincided with explosive playoff performances from then-junior running back Zak Drake, with 168 yards and two TDs against Holland Christian and 171 yards and two TDs against Hamilton. He’s the Lancers’ leading returning rusher, receiver and return man, with 1,500 all-purpose yards. Expect goods things from 6-1, 200 senior Jake Achtenberg, a linebacker and running back. He and another 6-1, 200-pounder, junior Daniel Harazin, both ran in the 4.5s at our Stevensville tour stop in July. 6-3, 180 senior Josh Boshu will replace Harold Wiggins as Lakeshore’s top wideout threats. The lone returning defensive starter is linebacker Dustin Clapp.
17. East Kentwood 4-5
EK has so much athletic depth, even in a season in flux like 2012 there was enough talent around to win four games. Now the program is taken over by Ryan Gallogly, the winningest coach by percentage ever at Brebeuf Prep in Indianapolis, 47-20 over six seasons. He may not have needed the horses in private school, small school ball in Indiana, he’s got ’em at EK. Few offensive lines will look more the part than EK’s, wit bookend tackles Elliot Jordan, a 6-7, 255 senior committed to his new coach’s alma mater WMU, and 6-3, 285 junior John Keenoy who is at least a MAC prospect himself. The Falcons have the making of a strong passing game amongst junior QB Kyle Friberg, senior receiver Colin Calloway and junior Kevin Smith. The defensive is athletic, all starting off on top of the ball with senior lineman Donte Nelson, a 6-1, 285 senior.
18. Caledonia 9-4
Defense-first, blue-collar program that last year battled through to a draw in the rugged O-K White, then gave Muskegon a scare in the Division 2 semifinals. While there may be no two-way domination like Heath Hoogerhyde provided last year, the overall team athleticism is high. If a similar talent is to emerge, it might be 6-0, 190 junior Michael Andrusiak. His brother Isaac was part of the strong class that just graduated. As tough as the O-K White is, Caledonia doesn’t have a killer schedule, with 0-9 Jenison in the league, and 0-9 Holland out of it.
19. Portage Northern 7-3
In the SWAC West it should again come down to the defending league champion, Lakeshore, Mattwan and Portage Northern. Of course the Portage Central-Northern matchups can go either way, as they did in 2012 with Northern dominating in the regular season but losing in the first round of playoffs. The Huskies are strong up the middle. Huge Austin Labus is a two-way lineman who has committed to Bowling Green. At linebacker Tyler Cummings and Preston Simon, who is one of the first names on the board for Lake Area linebacker recruits, 6-3, 2015 with 10 tackles behind the line as a junior. Senior DB Riley Bell piles up the picks.
20. Grand Rapids Northview 7-3
Northview turned some heads with scrimmage performances against Mattawan, Muskegon and West Ottawa. Maybe a repeat playoff appearance is far-fetched in veteran coach Greg Ganfield’s second season? It wouldn’t just be the second-straight, but the second all-time, postseason appearance for the school. The Wildcats have two terrific prospects in the junior class. 6-2, 265 Tommy Brown is a physical interior D lineman who keeps getting sharper on offense. Blake Bockheim is getting BCS interest because as a 6-4, 220 tight end he moves and catches like a receiver.
2. Grand Haven
3. West Ottawa
4. East Kentwood
5. Traverse City West
3. Muskegon Mona Shores
4. Traverse City Central
6. Portage Northern
7. Grand Rapids Northview
9. Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills
10. Portage Central
1. Grand Rapids Christian
2. Zeeland West
3. Zeeland East
4. East Grand Rapids
5. Stevensville Lakeshore
1. Grand Rapids South Christian
3. Comstock Park
4. Grand Rapids Catholic Central
5. Big Rapids
6. Paw Paw
7. Holland Christian
8. Hudsonville Unity Christian
9. West Branch Ogemaw Heights