BY DENNIS CHASE
TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Central will host its first football playoff game in 21 years tonight when Bay City Western invades Thirlby Field in a Division 2 pre-district battle between 8-1 teams.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
"We talked this week about being very proud to have a home playoff game," Trojans coach Tom Passinault said. "We know there will be people there who haven't seen us play all year. We want to play well for our school and our community because it's a big night for Traverse City."
Central's last home playoff game was a 21-18 loss to Saginaw Arthur Hill in 1991.
"There's nothing better in Traverse City at this time of year than a playoff game on a Friday night," said defensive assistant Konrad Visser, who was part of the Trojan staff in 1991.
Central's playoff history with Bay City Western doesn't go back as far. The two teams met in 2008 with the Warriors prevailing 26-13, this after the Trojans beat Western 32-31 during the regular season.
That was Western's last playoff win and Central's last playoff appearance.
Ironically, Jim Eurick, now retired, coached that Arthur Hill team in 1991 and Bay City Western in 2008.
Bruce Mann replaced Eurick and he's now guided the Warriors into the playoffs four consecutive years.
"Western's a traditional playoff team," Passinault said. "They're not real big, but they're quick. They run an offense with a lot of motion, a lot of counters. They're a big-play type team."
The Warriors boast a potent ground game led by Mason Myers and Charles Proctor. Myers has rushed for 1,200 yards, Proctor just shy of 800. Starting quarterback Joe Ivan is expected back after missing the final week of the regular season with a concussion.
"They have a 1,000-yard back, that's where you start (devising a game plan)," Trojans defensive coordinator Eric Schugars said. "They run the football well. The difficult thing for us was not seeing their quarterback play (last week). We've only seen him play a half game on film. That leaves a lot of questions out there. But when you look at that team, you've got to stop the run first. The motion can distract you, but you've got to be sound against the run."
The Trojans have been stout against the run most of the season, holding opponents to an average of 129 yards a game on the ground, thanks in part to the strong inside play of linemen David Chauvette, Jordan Lutze, Ken Merica and Seth Tice.
"Those guys are unsung heroes," Schugars said.
Central will counter with a strong running attack as well, one that revolves around quarterback T.J. Schepperly, who's rushed for 1,067 yards. The Trojans have five backs with over 200 yards.
Schepperly's also completed 50 of 102 passes for 747 yards.
Schepperly has accounted for 22 touchdowns (14 rushing, seven passing, one return) and T.J. Schwannecke 11 (five rushing, four receiving, two returns).
"We've got the kids who can make plays," Merica said.
Merica is also a stalwart on the offensive line that includes bookend tackles Mitchell Brien and Tyler Gildersleeve. They expect to see a quick Warriors defense.
"Bay City's fast so we'll have to stay low and finish our blocks," Brien said.
The Trojans average 261 yards a game on the ground. Although the line seldom draws the accolades, their work is greatly appreciated by Schepperly.
"Our quarterback treats us well," Brien said. "He gives us recognition. If he gets a huge run, he comes right over and says, 'Hey, good block, great job. You guys played through the whistle.' We have a quarterback who keeps us all together."
Passinault has stressed to his team the need to remain on an even keel, since there are often highs and lows in playoff games.
So far, he's been pleased with how the players have reacted when put to the test. A week ago, Cadillac returned a punt for a touchdown in the closing seconds of the second quarter to tie the game 21-21. Central then outscored the Vikings 21-0 in the second half.
"We responded," he said of last week's win. "When games have gotten close, where we've lost momentum, we've recaptured it. That's a good sign of maturity."
Leading Central in tackles are linebackers Nate Pupel and Nick Bonaccini and defensive end Mitchell Wynkoop.