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.
It’s September, and they’re entering the thick of it in West Michigan, making it too hard to pick just one game of the week. Here are some terrific options.
Muskegon @ Rockford
This is no longer an O-K Red game, as Muskegon was moved out of the league. But it remains one of the Lake Michigan area’s top rivalries, albeit one that typically favors the Rams, because these are programs are always competitive, have strong fan bases, and compete at the state level. Rockford QB Kyle Short could be back just in time for Rockford, because as Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield told us last week, the Big Reds may be back to playing Tony Annese era football. Muskegon is 2-0 and ranked No. 1 in Division 2, Rockford is 1-1 and the Lake’s No. 1 in Division 1.
Grand Rapids Christian @ Kenowa Hills
This could be a fun game because both teams have the athletes that can make plays in space. Kenowa is hoping to avoid a repeat of last season’s playoff opener, when the Eagles advanced 48-21. Not helping the Knights’ cause, their top two-way lineman, junior Zach Evans, may miss the game with a concussion. It’s too bad, as he might have matched up with GRC junior lineman Tommy Doles, two Big Ten prospects going at it. Kenowa is 2-0 and No. 4 in Division 2, GR Christian is 1-1 and No. 2 in Division 3.
Montague @ Muskegon Oakridge
Oakridge won this one last year by a point — which ultimately denied Montague a three-way tie atop the West Michigan Confernce along with Oakridge and Shelby. Oakridge becomes a heavy favorite if Montague QB Brandon Moore and running back Brandon Stine can’t go after being hurt against Hart. Montague is 2-0 and No. 1 in Division 6, while Oakridge is 2-0 and No. 2 in Division 5.
Dowagiac @ Plainwell
This is the Wolverine Conference opener for both teams. Both teams are 2-0, Dowagiac ranked No. 4 in Division 5 and Plainwell No. 5 in Division 4. Plainwell has yet to beat the Chieftans, and if this one gets close you have to favor Dowagiac thanks to senior Brett Scanlon. He could be a future Big Ten kicker, and last season against Plainwell nailed a 55-yarder.
Cadillac @ Petoskey
Gotta do it sometime. For Cadillac, why not try in their first Big North Conference game of the year? Last September, Petoskey treated Cadillac like the freshman team 63-24 en route to a perfect Big North mark. Most get a more egalitarian vibe for the league this year, though, and the Vikings come into it, like P-town, 2-0 and with conference and playoff aspirations. Petoskey is twice the Big North Conference champion, and the league title will again be decided largely on P-town’s Curtis Field, a facility of such an age one wouldn’t be shocked if Jesse Owens once raced a horse there on a cinder track.
Why so cocky, grasshopper? Because it wasn’t so long ago that Vikings tasted Northmen blood. This is the their most talented team since 2009, when they gave Petoskey their only league loss and won the Big North. A year later Cadillac avenged a regular season loss to P-town with a 24-21 post-season win which launched them to a state playoff regional appearance. Now here comes Caddy with an all-senior offensive line held up by the best pair of tackles not just in the Lake Michigan coverage area, but the entire state of Michigan. On the left side, 6-6, 275 senior Jack Ford looks “small” only because he’s book-ended with 6-7, 315 right tackle Riley Norman. Ford has committed to Central Michigan and has the look of one of those MAC linemen that will keep getting better, because he has the frame to put on good weight and has a bad-blooded, play through the whistle attitude. He finishes plays. For his part, based solely on his physical tools, Norman would’ve been an All-American and the top lineman prospect from Northern Michigan since Jake Fisher at Traverse City West two seasons ago. Fisher is on his way to become a three-year starter at top 5 Oregon — unless he leaves early for the Draft. Norman is choosing the amateur route, and will be a thrower on MSU’s track-and-field team, but not suit up for Mark Dantonio. Norman plays both ways, and led Cadillac with 10 tackles in last week’s win at Bay City John Glenn.
Running and throwing from behind that Cadillac line is one of Lake Michigan’s top 10 2014 prospects, junior QB Jalen Brooks. Zeeland East’s junior running back/linebacker Spencer Viening is similar to quarterback/cornerback Brooks in size and style, but Brooks is faster, more elusive and explosive while standing a couple inches taller. Which puts him in good company, since Viening is hearing from the likes of Michigan, MSU, Nebraska … do that math. The Vikings rushed for 300 yards against Johnn Glenn, while Brooks and receiver Patrick Briggs were part of both Cadillac TDs. But it was actually Briggs who threw the first one, some trickeration to Logan Webb for a 63-yard score. Then in the fourth quarter it was Brooks-Briggs 53 yards; Brooks two-point conversion for the win. They also had a pass-catch TD in Cadillac’s season-opening win over Lansing Eastern. Briggs, a 6-3, 175 junior hockey standout, has emerged as the downfield threat the Vikings weren’t sure they had going into the season. Despite the lopsided Petoskey game last year, Brooks left his mark running for all three of Caddy’s touchdowns.
It will be strength-on-strength with Cadillac’s offensive line banging with Petoskey’s defensive line. Petoskey doesn’t have similarly monstrous size, but the all-senior front four of Kegan Schoenith, Pat Antonides, Jordan Haggerty and Will McMasters has helped the Northmen limit opponents to one touchdown over two games. The Northmen defense turned over a pretty talented Ogemaw Heights three times last week. They have two veteran playmakers in the defensive backfield, senior Tony DeAgostino at corner and senior Quinn Ameel at safety. Cadillac’s defense is much improved itself, and there’s one train of thought that this one could turn into a defensive tussle.
Now in coach Kerry VanOrman‘s 10th season, PHS has become the Big North football standard. The Northmen seek their fifth consecutive playoff appearance, and have done it with the seemingly simple formula of time-consuming, power football on the ground, and strong defense. Despite all-time rusher Joe Robbins matriculating to Grand Valley State from the 2011 team that set a single-season school scoring mark, 21-0 and 34-8. It’s a testament to the strength of the program that Petoskey has been able to reload from last year. They may have to keep reloading, though, as their leading rusher, Chase Ledingham, has been slowed by a groin injury. That would put increased attention on the other starting wingback, sophomore Kurt Boucher, as well as senior QB Ameel. Now a second-year starter, he is the perfect quarterback for what Petoskey asks of him — run the offense efficiently, make tough runs himself, complete throws on the rare chance he’s asked to and, most importantly, be the leader. Ameel is the type of player who may not have all the measurables, but if you want to win a football game, you want him on your side.
Ledingham isn’t the only injury of note for this one. Cadillac is still missing junior tight end/linebacker Justin Liptak, who was hurt in a preseason scrimmage, but could possibly return kicker Nick Paquet, who injured his shoulder playing basketball in the summer.
Friday, Aug. 31: Zeeland West @ Zeeland East
This one will no longer have O-K Green implications, as realignment finds Zeeland East in the O-K Black. But that shouldn’t minimize the emotional investment when these next-door neighbors hook up.
Defending Division 4 state champion West scored 58 points in its season opener with Forest Hills Central … and lost, by a point. That’s the msot school has ever allowed and particularly amazing considering in 2011 the Dux allowed 185 points — in 14 games. For its part last week, East rolled up up a 63-28 win over Holland Christian.
Both teams obviously had some silly stats from that one. East ran for 497 yards running behind senior center Andrew Bouwman and senior left tackle Patrick Banks. Junior all-state candidate Spencer Viening scored four TDs , Josh Blauwkamp two and QB Michael Custer two. For West, QB Jordan Lambert handles their renowned wing-T offense and ran for three TDs against Forest Hills Central while their two running backs, Braden Werley and Marcus Lambert, combined for 294 rushing yards.
If West’s defense doesn’t grow up a lot in the week after their first loss in over a year, it could be a rare win for the Chix in this rivalry. The Dux lead 5-2 since the series started in 2005.
Friday, Aug. 31: West Branch Ogemaw Heights @ Petoskey
This is the Big North Conference opener for both teams, as Petoskey begins defense of its league title. The Northmen have come to be known for a plodding but brutally efficient ,multi-back running game under coach Kerry VanOrman, and their 2012 edition looks no different. In their 21-0 season opening win against Sault Ste. Marie, senior Chase Ledingham ran for 155 yards and two TDs while Kurt Boucher, just a sophomore, had 71 yards and a score of his own. Directing the attack for Petoskey is senior Quinn Ameel, a returnee at QB.
Petoskey’s defense was the real star, though, standing stout to shut out the Sault while holding them to five first downs and under 100 yards of total offense. That can’t be particularly reassuring news to Ogemaw Heights, which lost last season to P-town 56-7. That was Ogemaw’s first-ever Big North game, however, and this should be a more battle-tested unit. Aside from the Petoskey loss, offense wasn’t the problem last year for the Falcons and it could again be a potent unit thanks in no small part to three college prospects — senior running back Brandon Bermac, senior receiver Jerome Hunter and one of the top junior linemen in Michigan, 6-5, 265 Alec Stevens. Ogemaw Heights beat Standish-Sterling last week 38-20. Bermac ran for 156 yards and two TDs and Hunter had 102 receiving yards and a TD.
Thursday, Aug. 23
Lowell @ Rockford
Lowell won this one last year, 28-7, and capped 2011 with a third-straight state finals appearance. The Red Arrows graduated stalwart all-state quarterback Gabe Dean, but how could you doubt a replacement as amazingly named as Titan Anderson? The Red Arrows do return their top player on the defensive side, speedy senior rush end Pierce Watson.
The Rams thought they’d do the same — but safety KC Zenner won’t be back just yet as he recovers from a knee injury. A school Rockford’s size isn’t exactly lacking in depth, and Zenner’s absence just means the junior linebacking duo of Randy Gervin and Brent Showers will step it up. On the offensive side, while he doesn’t have Michigan lineman Ben Braden to run behind anymore, Rams senior Connor Darby is one of the top backs in West Michigan.
Friday, Aug. 24
McBain @ Boyne City
This one was a rout last year, as the (McBain) Ramblers blanked the (Boyne City) Ramblers. But there is renewed hope on the southern shore of Lake Charlevoix with the return of long-time and highly successful coach Dave Hills after a three-season sabbatical. During his first tenure, Hills’ teams went 69-26 and made eight straight playoff appearances and were the rare Lake Michigan Conference team that would stand up to powerhouse Traverse City St. Francis, playing hard-hitting, “Boyne Tough” football.
McBain was 9-2 last season, and won the Highland Conference. Senior Jared Larr returns at quarterback and junior Zach Stephan is a strong runner. But will an inexperienced line have jelled for Week 1 to play McBain’s patented power football?