BY MIKE DUNN Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — GAYLORD — The road to the Ski Valley Conference South title still runs through Mancelona.
The Ironmen of coach Dan Derrer are the three-time defending league champs and bring a 21-game SVC winning streak into the 2013 season.
The Ski Valley will be divided into North and South divisions for the second year in a row, though there’s talk of combining the teams into one large league next year.
This year, Mancelona appears to be the team to beat again in the Ski Valley South. Vying to wrest the title from the Ironmen will be Onaway, Central Lake, Johannesburg-Lewiston, Gaylord St. Mary and Forest Area.
In the North, St. Ignace is the returning champion after going unbeaten in 2012 with Inland Lakes, Pickford, Rudyard and Pellston as contenders. Rogers City was part of the Ski Valley North a year ago but has moved out of the league.
Mancelona lost 12 players to graduation, including All-State running back Wyatt Derrer and quarterback Kyle Schepperley, but the cupboard is far from bare. Senior fullback Logan Borst (5-9, 185) is a three-year starter and senior halfback Justin Spires (6-1, 185) returns to the varsity for his third year. Spires, who was injured and missed part of last season, is the latest of the breakaway threats the Ironmen seem to produce year after year. Seniors Jake Allen and Nick Bevins were backfield reserves last year and will rotate in at halfback with varsity newcomers Chase Wilcox and Cole VanWagoner.
Senior Jake Winstead (5-10, 175) steps in at quarterback to engineer the run-oriented double-wing offense. He started three games a year ago and played in the second half of nearly every game.
All-Conference center Tristen Fleet (6-2, 275) anchors the offensive line with returning starters Garrett Derrer (5-10, 190) at guard and Tristan Waters (6-1, 220) at tackle. Senior Luke Smigielski (5-11, 185) is back at tight end.
The Ironmen aren’t quite as big or quite as deep up front as they’ve been in recent years but they still possess the biggest and deepest O-line in the league and that will make them tough to beat.
On the defensive side, Smigielski returns at inside linebacker and is joined by senior Nick Balhorn (5-9, 180) in Mancelona’s 5-2 defensive alignment. Other key returnees include Keegan Richardson (6-2, 300) on the D-line, Garrett Derrer at outside linebacker and Cody Derrer at defensive end. Borst and Spires return to the secondary.
“Every year is different,” Dan Derrer said. “What we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter; we have to go out and perform if we want to have success this season. Our goals haven’t changed. We won’t overlook anybody and we’ll take things one game at a time and see what happens.”
On paper, the team that appears to have the best chance of matching up with Mancelona is Onaway under first-year head coach Jim Cleaver. Onaway made the playoffs a year ago with a 5-4 record.
The Cardinals have the most experienced group of returning skill players and possess outstanding team speed. They have an experienced line as well.
Senior Matt Tollini (5-9, 165) is back behind center running an offense that features multiple formations. Tollini is quick and is considered the top overall quarterback in the league. He can run the option, throw accurately and deep.
Senior receivers Tommy Auger (5-9, 150) and Carlos Bautista (6-2, 185) return and will spread defenses with their speed. The backfield features senior sizzler Noah Bacon (5-9, 180) at tailback with Jamaal Porter (5-9, 210) at fullback and freshman D.J. Fenstermaker (5-6, 200) providing excellent depth.
Seniors Chris Cleaver (5-11, 205), Casey Watson (5-9, 195) and Frank Ramos (5-6, 190) are all returning starters on the O-line along with Mike Hart and junior Cody Whitsitt. Junior Cody Morell (6-1, 180) is a key varsity newcomer at tight end.
The Cardinals will be able to score points this season. The fate of the Onaway season may depend on how well the defense fares.
Watson, Ramos and Cleaver are returning D-line starters with Tollini back at linebacker and Auger and Bautista returning to the secondary.
“Our goal this year is to get into the playoffs with at least six wins and be the first Onaway team since 1976 to win a playoff game,” Cleaver said.
Coach Rob Heeke has some key playmakers returning from a team that posted a 7-4 record and reached the Division 8 district finals a year ago. Senior halfbacks Will Brockman (6-2, 185) and George Thayer (6-0, 185) form a prolific 1-2 punch in the backfield. Senior Sam Potter (6-2, 180) is back at receiver and will also see time at quarterback.
The greatest challenge for the Trojans will be depth. Heeke has just 16 players on the varsity, including six sophomores.
“Ironman football is back at Central Lake,” Heeke said.
Brockman is explosive, having amassed more than 1,200 yards rushing a year ago while scoring 148 points. Thayer, though he was used primarily as a blocker, also gained more than 700 yards. Potter will split time at QB along with sophomore Ben Hicks (5-10, 160), who is fast and will see duty at halfback when Potter is calling the signals.
Seniors Jeff Joyce (6-2, 220) and Corbin Newton (6-0, 200) anchor an O-line that has decent size but is thin in numbers.
There are five returning starters on defense, including Brockman at linebacker, Thayer at defensive end and Potter in the secondary. Junior linebackers Jack Dawson (6-1, 180) and Alan Szoka (5-11, 185) are key newcomers to the varsity along with sophomore Chase Ritchie (5-9, 189) and junior Luke Seaney (5-9, 155) in the secondary.
Central Lake’s starting unit is solid on both sides of the ball but the Trojans cannot afford injuries.
“This is the fastest team we’ve had and the strongest in my four years as coach,” Heeke said. “If our young guys can get up to speed as quickly as possible and we can stay healthy, I expect us to be competitive.”
First-year head coach Joe Smokevitch fields a team that is long on potential but short on varsity experience. The Cardinals lost several key starters from the team that reached the Division 8 regional championship game with Beal City a year ago but there are talented playmakers coming up from a JV squad that lost just one game last season.
Smokevitch is entering his 14th season with the Johannesburg program and served as offensive coordinator under previous head coach John Bush.
“We won’t be changing a whole lot,” he said. “We may spread teams out a little more but we’re going to run the football. We’re still a wing-T team.”
Sophomore Brandon Huff (6-2, 180) takes over at QB after doing well at the JV level. He throws accurately and runs hard but what Smokevitch likes the most is Huff’s on-the-field savvy, something that’s essential in an offensive scheme that requires option reads on each snap.
Senior Dillon Cushman (5-10, 180) is the most experienced halfback on the roster. Sophomores Nick May (5-10, 175), Ethan May (5-6, 140) and Logan Huff (5-9, 165) were explosive JV players but are unproven at the varsity level.
Seniors Coalton Huff (5-10, 160) and Cam Nickert (6-2, 180) return at tight end and are capable receivers and blockers. They bolster the O-line along with seniors Brad Kussrow (6-0, 210) at center and Logan Hipsher (5-10, 200) at tackle.
Cushman at inside linebacker, Kussrow at defensive end and Coalton Huff at free safety are returning starters for the Cardinals defensively. Logan Huff and Brandon Huff will man linebacker posts in the 5-3 scheme.
Coach Josh Merchant has the skill players returning but the line is quite young.
The Warriors boast a pair of rangy, experienced playmakers at receiver in seniors Justin Burke (6-4, 190) and Scott Sedwick (6-7, 195). Senior Austin Vance (6-2, 205) switched from tight end to QB for the final four games last season and the team responded well to his leadership. He brings toughness to the QB role and is adept at reading defenses. He is also a hard-nosed runner with the ability to get the ball into the hands of Burke and Sedwick when he goes to the air.
Sophomore Dion Burke (5-10, 195) is expected to be a high-impact starter at fullback. He joins senior speedster Hayden Hollister in the backfield along with sophomore sprinters Eric Wagner (5-7, 145) and Paul Korn (5-8, 160). All the skill players on the Forest Area roster run 40 yards in less than 5 seconds.
Junior Mike White (6-0, 205), who has been moved from center to tackle, is the only experienced lineman returning. Junior Reese Velfling (6-0, 250) is a key newcomer at center.
The Warriors will employ multiple fronts defensively. Hollister returns at rush end and will also play some linebacker. Dion Burke will play the middle with older brother Justin Burke and Sedwick returning to the secondary. Junior Chris Shelske (5-9, 170) is a key newcomer on the D-line.
“I expect us to play hard to the whistle on every play,” Merchant said. “If we do that, I think we can look at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter and be there with most teams.”
GAYLORD ST. MARY
First-year coach Kevin O’Connell is seeking to restore the roar to a Snowbird program which was winless last year and has struggled in recent seasons chiefly because of depth and size issues.
O’Connell, who served previously as defensive coordinator at both Gaylord and Grayling, has some proven playmakers to work with, including senior Nick Harrington (5-10, 175), a slashing runner who is taking over at QB this season. Seniors Carmen Juneac (5-11, 210) at fullback and Anders Marquard (5-10, 180) at tailback are also returning from last year.
When Harrington goes to the air, he has some rangy targets in long-armed senior Charles Strehl (6-4, 190) and junior Orion Beningo (6-3, 195), who has been moved from tackle to tight end. Sophomores Adam Nowicki (5-10, 145) and Alphonse Buclay (5-6, 150) bring speed to the receiving corps.
Senior two-year starters Brendan Nowicki (6-1, 255) at center and Willie Canfield (5-11, 185) at guard anchor the O-line.
Junior middle linebacker Cole Loffer (5-11, 195) will be in the thick of the action for O’Connell’s 4-3 defense. Beningo at defensive end and Juneac at strong-side linebacker are key returnees.
The secondary should be a strength with Harrington at strong safety, Marquard at free safety and Adam Nowicki and Jack Lochinski at cornerbacks.