TRAVERSE CITY — The Big North Conference looks to be a battle royale this season.
With five of the seven teams coming off winning seasons and the other two hiring coaches with established track records, the road to a BNC crown isn’t getting any easier.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if the winning team had a couple losses by the end of the year,” Cadillac coach Jim Webb said. “I can’t see anyone going through unscathed.”
Traverse City Central was able to do that last year, going 6-0 in league play, but it’ll be no easy task to duplicate.
In the annual BNC preseason media poll, Traverse City West was selected as the favorite, with Cadillac second and TC Central and Ogemaw Heights tied for third.
“Our league is going to be, by far, the best it’s been since I’ve been here — top to bottom,” TC West coach Tim Wooer said. “Ogemaw finished strong last year, and I think they return 17 starters from what I counted. That’s crazy. And Central has that phenomenal junior class, so I think those two are the teams to beat. We’ll be competitive if we continue to improve. Petoskey will be better than they were last year. Alpena has some great, skilled kids with a coach that knows how to run the run-and-shoot in Mel Skillman. Gaylord has Will Cleaver back. And Cadillac has the best athlete in the league in Jalen Brooks.”
Cleaver, who returns to guide the Gaylord program, said the league is stronger now than when he was there from 2000-2007.
“The Big North is more tough now than it was before I left,” Cleaver said. “Petoskey turned it around. Cadillac has always been tough, and both Traverse City schools. In Ogemaw, Pratley has done a great job down there. I think we lost to them my last two years (in Gaylord) in 2006 and 2007. And then Alpena getting Mel Skillman. That guy has coached collegiately, he’s run the spread offense all over the place, so I’m sure they’ll be improved.”
Ogemaw also has a new coach in long-time assistant Bill Foster, who takes over for Andrew Pratley.
“The league is as tough as I have seen it as far as talent,” Webb said. “And then we have a bunch of new coaches, which throws in a lot of unknowns.”
Last season, TC West and Ogemaw — the smallest BNC school by over 200 students — tied for second, two games behind the Trojans at 4-2.
“I think West is a team to beat,” TC Central coach Tom Passinault said. “They’ve got one of the top offensive lines that we’ve seen. They’re going to be very good. Beyond that, I think everyone will be scrapping and fighting to be part of it. The coaching is outstanding. And every week seems to be a challenge.”
The Vikings don’t have the mammoth bookend offensive tackles they boasted a year ago, but they have one vital piece back: Quarterback Jalen Brooks.
A player many coaches are calling the best in the league, Brooks accounted for 1,754 rushing yards, another 609 passing and 33 touchdowns.
“We did a nice job of bottling him up last year,” Wooer said. “But still, he had an 80-yard run and a 60-yard run.”
“It’s always nice to have an athlete of his caliber,” Webb said of Brooks. “With all the good things he’s done for us the last couple years, it’s always a good place to start your offense by having him coming back.”
The Vikings return starting tailback Tanner Derror, receivers Patrick Briggs and Logan Webb and 210-pound tight end Justin Liptak, who suffered a separated shoulder during the basketball season and could miss the beginning of football.
Cadillac has exactly one starter back on the offensive line. Junior Matt Myers was brought up to varsity for one game due to injuries to start last year’s playoff game. The other five line starters are gone, including massive tackles Riley Norman and Jack Ford. All told, about 1,300 pounds of blockers need to be replaced. Thomas Kraynak, Hunter Linton, Cody Stillwell and junior Sam Denman will join Myers in that effort.
“We may have lost some size, but I think we gained some speed in areas,” Webb said. “I definitely like the make-up of our team as far as the unity of it, and their passion and coachability.”
On defense, Cadillac has safety Lewis Finch, defensive lineman Trevor Martin and middle linebacker Blake Ford back.
Carl Wier, a 300-pound senior defensive lineman, will suit up this year after sitting out last season due the transfer rules.
The Vikings are trying to make the playoffs for the fifth straight year, which would set a new program record. And they’ll mine a 7-2 JV team for new talent.
The Falcons have a bevy of talent back from a team that surprised many around the BNC and posted a 4-2 mark and went on to win a pair of playoff games as well to end up 8-4 overall.
Although they lost star running back Brandon Benac and receiver Jerome Hunter, the offense brings back eight starters. Similarly, the defense has seven starters returning.
Foster said he’ll keep Pratley’s inventive spread offense, although he wouldn’t say whether or not it would feature two quarterbacks on the field at the same time as it occasionally did last season. Ben Hartley, a captain as a junior, and Devin Griffus are vying for snaps.
“I don’t know that we really have a starting quarterback,” said Foster, who had been an assistant at Ogemaw for 21 years. “Either one of those two kids can play pretty well.”
The team was very junior-laden last year, having 27 on varsity, along with a pair of sophomores — Hartley and running back/safety Josh Awrey.
“We’re not really deep,” Foster said. “A lot of kids are going to end up going both ways, just because of the experience we had last year. If we can stay healthy, I think we can do OK.”
Aside from losing Pratley and his father, the coaching staff returns intact. Foster was last year’s defensive coordinator.
The defense is spearheaded by twins Shane and Shawn Benjamin at outside linebacker, all-BNC lineman Tommy DeMatio and Awrey.
Tackle Alec Stevens (6-5, 270) anchors the offensive line, and receiver Michael vonKronenburger is the top receiving threat for an offense that returns virtually all of its skill players and racked up 34.75 points a game last season.
Petoskey could be the league’s wild card.
The Northmen have six starters back on each side of the ball, and the return of starting tailback Chase Ledingham from a hip injury that cost him a big chunk of last year will be big.
Back for Petoskey are fullback/linebacker Connor Reed, running back/cornerback Nick Strobel, running back/linebacker Kurt Boucher, tackle/defensive end James Gazarato, offensive tackle/defensive tackle Chandler Matelski, guard/defensive end Zach Tibbits and tight end/linebacker Shea Whitmore.
If Ledingham plays both ways, that will give Petoskey four starting linebackers from the beginning of last season back from a team that gave up less than 20 points a game.
Ledingham and Boucher each had over 500 rushing yards last season. Evan Whitemore, a 6-2 sophomore, takes over at quarterback for Quinn Ameel.
Still, Petoskey — like a lot of BNC squads — has a tough schedule. Seven of nine opponents had winning records last year, including each of the Northmen’s first six opponents.
“And seven teams we play this year were in the playoffs last year,” Petoskey coach Kerry VanOrman said. “We have a stretch there starting with Week Two against Hastings and then with road games against Cadillac, TC West and Cheboygan and then playing (TC) Central. That’s a tough stretch.”
The Northmen also lost offensive lineman Tommy Roush (6-3, 270), who instead will be starting on West’s line after moving back to Traverse City. The Northmen lack a lot of size or experience on the line.
The Wildcats are hoping new coach Mel Skillman turns around a program that hasn’t had more than three wins in a season since 2004.
Skillman has been coaching nearly 60 years and has amassed a record of 256-170-6 — 16th all-time in Michigan and six wins behind TC Central assistant coach Eric Schugars’ father, Jack.
He’ll bring the spread offense back to Alpena, delivering plenty of passing in the process. Having an experienced Wildcat team returning could help lessen that transition. And an influx of talent from a 7-1-1 JV team that piled up points won’t hurt, either.
Junior Tyler Pintar takes over at quarterback. Dakota Patterson is the main returning back from last year and had 216 yards on 36 carries (6.0 per carry), and will split carries with Jordan Ferguson.
Tim Atkinson, a 6-3, 220-pound senior, is Alpena’s main receiving threat, hauling in 199 yards worth of passes last year in a run-oriented offense.
Junior linebacker Brad Styma should be a leader on defense. He had 82 tackles last year and eight tackles for loss.He’ll be flanked at linebacker by Evan Hamp and Cade MacArthur.
Cleaver returns to the Blue Devils’ sideline after a five-year hiatus.
The Blue Devils had 12 juniors and three sophomores on varsity last year. But those players will have to learn a new offense as the program moves away from the double-wing scheme it’s used for several years and adopts Cleaver’s spread offense that led to a 52-18 record in eight seasons and six playoff berths. The Blue Devils were 37-11 in BNC contests in that span.
Over the last four years, Gaylord has combined to win three football games.
“Baby steps,” Cleaver said. “We’ve got a long way to go. I’m hoping we can win a few games and get back on track as far as learning to win.”
The Devils used a single-wing offense the last two years under Mark Mendolia and the double wing for two seasons with Doug Berkshire at the helm.
Junior back Cotton Neff was a starter last year as a sophomore, and Steven Fitzek made one start on varsity as a sophomore last season, throwing for 189 yards against the league’s top defense in Traverse City Central — mainly to tight end Collin Watters, who returns as a junior.
“He’s definitely got some ability,” Cleaver said of Fitzek.
Elk Rapids sophomore transfer Kyle Augustine (6-2, 295) will give Gaylord’s offensive line a boost.
Under Cleaver, 2000-03 was the best four-year stretch in Blue Devils history.
Gaylord’s schedule won’t help much, either. The Devils face seven teams that owned winning records in 2012. And of the two that didn’t, one of them is a much-improved Traverse City St. Francis.