BY DENNIS CHASE firstname.lastname@example.org
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — There’s no question about what team is the clear cut favorite in the Northwest Conference.
The Lakers return a solid nucleus from a team that went 9-2, won the league and advanced to the district finals.
“We don’t want to be one of those teams up one year, down the next,” Lakers coach Jerry Angers said. “We want to carry on that success year to year.”
With a cast that includes quarterback Carter Lee, running back-linebacker Trevor Apsey, tackle Wade Peplinski and receiver-defensive back Thomas Waning, it’s no wonder the Lakers are excited about the upcoming season.
“They’re probably as loaded as they’ve been in a long time,” Suttons Bay coach Joe Trudeau said.
Lee starts his third season at quarterback. He rushed for 416 yards and passed for 359, accounting for eight touchdowns, in the nine-game 2012 regular season.
“He’s the senior,” Angers said. “This is his team. He’s the leader.”
Apsey, a 6-foot, 205-pound senior, was the team’s top rusher a year ago, averaging 11 yards a carry in gaining 672 yards before breaking an ankle in Week 9. The Lakers will utilize him in a number of ways, including a wideout.
Waning, a 6-2, 180-pound senior, gives Lee a nice target on the outside.
Peplinski anchors a line that also includes tight end Logan LaCross, who is best remembered for his tip-in with one second remaining that forced overtime in Glen Lake’s Class C regional basketball championship win over Shelby, the same school that knocked the Lakers out of the football playoffs.
Glen Lake averaged 31 points a game last season.
It’s on defense, though, where the Lakers have earned their reputation. They limited foes to under 12 points a game last fall.
That defense is led by Apsey at middle linebacker.
“I think he’s the best athlete in northern Michigan,” Angers said. “Not only is he a great football player, but he’s a great hockey player and, I think, the best catcher in northern Michigan. The kid has natural ability.”
Angers coached Traverse City West’s Eric Gordon, a four-year starter at Michigan State. He said Apsey has many of Gordon’s traits.
“Apsey is Eric’s clone,” Angers said. “Eric was pretty special, but that’s who he (Apsey) reminds me of. The same build, the same mannerisms, the quietness, just get-the-job-done type of guy. He’s that good.”
Peplinski and Nick Butts provide strength inside at tackle. Butts is 5-7, 135 pounds.
“He’s (Butts) a three-year player,” Angers said. “Tough, quick, fast. His dad was on a state championship team here. It’s in his blood.”
Elliott Bregni, the team’s leading tackler, joins Apsey and junior jack-of-all-trades Travis Wiltjer at linebacker. Waning and Lee head up the secondary.
“He (Waning) turned some heads at the Northwood 7-on-7,” Angers said. “There were four coaches at one time watching him. They were like, ‘Who’s that kid?’ I said, ‘He’s a baseball player.’ They’re like, ‘Does he want to play college football?’ I mentioned that to Thomas, and then he intercepted two passes in a row.”
Angers said the goal this season is simple.
“Our No. 1 goal is to win the league,” he said. “If we do that, the playoffs take care of themselves.”
Perhaps no team was hit harder by graduation than Kingsley.
The Stags had 21 seniors on the 2012 roster.
Coach Jason Leonard has 22 players on the roster this season, including four sophomores.
The Stags return five starters on offense and five on defense off a team that went 6-4 and qualified for the playoffs a second consecutive season. That despite an injury to star back Tristan Eickenroth, who missed a majority of last season.
“The kids stepped up,”Leonard said. “Eickenroth never ran the ball for us until Week 8. He blocked the first two plays against St. Francis (in season opener) and got hurt on the second play. He played three games, rushed for almost 700 yards and 10 touchdowns or something ridiculous like that. The kid was some kind of an athlete. We’ll miss him.”
Eickenroth is now at Ferris State.
Key returnees include quarterback Tyler Newell, running back-cornerback Derrek Arlt, offensive lineman-middle linebacker Michael Boss, guard-linebacker Kelly Lark, tight end-defensive tackle Scott McPherson, and fullback-linebacker Nathan Zenner. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound McPherson was an all-league pick on both sides of the ball. Zenner stepped in when Eickenroth was injured.
“Our expectations are high,” Leonard said. “We talk about winning the conference. We haven’t done that.”
Leonard likes the attitude of his team — and the smarts.
“We’re an academic all-state team,” he said. “Our GPA on both sides of the ball is around 3.75 to 3.8.”
The sophomores will play pivotal roles.
Nick Ames, a transfer from Forest Area, will start at nose guard. Hunter Scott will play wide receiver and safety. Nick Endres is vying for time at linebacker and running back. Jeff Pearson will succeed Justin Leusby at center.
“That’s (center) an important position,” Leonard said. “We had a good run there with (Leusby). We didn’t have one botched snap, or one center to quarterback fumble in a game last year. When we lost Justin I thought this could be a problem. But we have a young kid (Pearson) taking his place and he’s been a pleasant surprise.”
The Stags have a unique streak they’ll be trying to extend. Kingsley has not lost a home game in nearly three years.
“If we can win first couple games that would be big, mentally and physically,” he said.
Frankfort’s streak of 17 consecutive playoff appearances ended last season when the Panthers finished 4-5.
“That left a bad taste in our mouths,” Frankfort coach Matt Stapleton said. “These guys are hungry to get right back into it.
“This is an incredible place to play. How fortunate are we that expectations are so high every year. And our kids try every year to reach those expectations.”
This will be a relatively inexperienced Panther team. Stapleton has six seniors on the team and returns just four two-way starters — linebacker-tight end Jacob Chappell, quarterback-linebacker Dave Loney, receiver-defensive back Connor Bradley and running back-defensive back Brandon Schaub.
“I always say I’m cautiously optimistic,” Stapleton said. “And I am again. I’m excited to see what these kids can accomplish.”
The Panthers lost three league games by a total of 11 points last season — 8-6 to Benzie, 12-6 to Kingsley and 15-12 to Glen Lake.
“We couldn’t put many points on the board,” Stapleton said. “We’ll always focus on having a solid defense, but this year we’re going to up the ante on offense and try to make sure we’re taking care of that end as well.”
It will help if Loney can stay healthy. He did not play in two games, and did not finish three others, in a injury-plagued 2012 campaign.
Loney, a junior, is one of a number of players out from the school’s basketball team that won Frankfort’s first regional since 1975.
“I’ll have basically that whole basketball team,” Stapleton said.
Loney’s younger brother, Mason, will play tight end-defensive end while Kole Hollenbeck will be at running back-linebacker.
“ I’m certainly excited about our athleticism,” Stapleton said. “We have some athletes on the field. I also like the attitude of the kids. They’ve been getting after it. We’re going to compete, no doubt about it.”
The question is: Just how quickly can this team come together?
“We’re going to be like that seed you plant and watch grow,” Stapleton said. “We just hope we have some awesome fertilizer because we’re going to need to grow fast.”
Like Frankfort, Benzie Central is low on numbers in its senior class.
“We have five (seniors), six on a good day,” coach Steve Cox said. “We’re very young.”
The Huskies won the Northwest Conference two years ago, but fell to three wins last season. Cox plans to make some changes.
“Our expectations are to play as team,” he said. “I know that sounds like a cliche, but I think we’re trying to establish our own identity. We’ve been a wing-T team for years, then I kind of molded an offense around (former quarterback) Shane Roelofs. Last year, we tried to do some things, wing-T, power, and it didn’t work. They say if you don’t like what you’re getting, you change what you’re doing. I’m taking that to heart. We’re trying to establish a new identity offensively, a new identity defensively. In order to do that, everyone unselfishly has to come together. We’re not going to rely on one person making all the plays offensively. We’re not going to rely on two guys making all tackles defensively. We’re going to mold ourselves into something unique. We’re going to do some things different.”
So what changes does Cox plan to implement?
“I’m going to keep them under wraps (until the season starts),” he said.
Seniors Evan Mocan and Jacob Cutler will be two veterans Cox will build around. Mocan plays fullback and linebacker.
“He had a good spring, a good summer,” Cox said of Mocan. “He really put in the work, I’d feel really bad if this kid didn’t rack up a lot of yards and a lot of tackles.”
Cutler will anchor the offensive line at center. He’ll joined by mainly underclassmen, including junior twins Tim and Tom Smith. Tim was on varsity as a sophomore. Tom was a starter on a good JV team. Aaron Whaley, a 6-3, 200-pound tight end, moves up to varsity as well.
Juniors Zach Drake and Chase Buist, who happen to be best friends, are vying for the starting quarterback job.
“They’re both working hard,” Cox said. “One’s got a better this, one’s got a better that. Right now they’re making my job tough. They’re both talented. They both run and work hard. It would do me no good to start one and sit the other. They both have to be on the field.”
So the one that doesn’t start at quarterback will play halfback.
Benzie has one of the strangest schedules in the north. The Huskies home opener is not until Week 6. The first five games are on the road, the last four at home.
Conditioning could be the key for Suttons Bay.
That, and staying healthy.
Coach Joe Trudeau has just 16 players on the varsity roster.
“You have to realize that it’s going to be an uphill battle, that it’s going to be hard to beat teams that have 25 to 30 guys,” he said. “We’re going to have to be in way better shape than they are because we’ll have a good core group going both ways all the time.
“If we’re going to be successful, and have a chance to get in the playoffs and compete in our league, then we’ll need to be injury free.”
The Norsemen, 1-8 a year ago, will be paced by linebacker-offensive lineman Shocko Shawandase, quarterback Casey Cross, linebacker-guard Cluadio Ruiz, receiver Lars Thornton, defensive end-offensive tackle Gabe Rittenhouse and running back-linebacker Zack Rice. Shawandase and Ruiz were the co-leaders in tackles last season. Junior Kyle Campeau, off the JV, will join Rice as a primary ballcarrier.
Cross, meanwhile, gained experience when starter Sean Lammy was injured.
“We have some decent speed and quickness,” Trudeau said. “We could use some more depth. We have talent to compete. We just have to make sure we’re healthy.”
Mesick went 1-8 last season, but new coach coach Josh Crocker believes he’s coming into a “good situation.”
Crocker, who played at Suttons Bay, was hired into the system as a junior high social studies teacher in November.
“I feel like I came into a very good situation,” he said. “There’s a lot of speed, a lot of size here. The kids are excited to play football. The fact I get the opportunity to catch these kids right before they leave, playing football at the highest level of their careers, is a blessing for me as a first-year varsity coach.”
Numbers are thin on varsity. Crocker has 16 players, but there are 23 on JV.
“We have good numbers coming up through the program,” he said. “Everybody seems to be excited.”
Crocker’s first team will be led by senior backs Brad Harris and Pete Roush.
“Those two give us speed on the perimeter,” he said.
Senior Billy Bardocz and sophomore Garrett Humphreys are vying for the starting job at quarterback.
“They complement each other,” Crocker said. “One can do what the other seems to struggle with.
“They’re both tremendous kids. It’s not a quarterback competition in the sense they’re trying to undermine the other one. They’re helping each other get better, which is making the decision more difficult.”
The Bulldogs will have some big bodies up front, led by center Zach Rifle.
“He put in a lot of time to drop weight and get quicker feet and it’s really changed his game,” Crocker said. “We have some big guys up front who are really motivated and have worked out hard this off-season.”
Crocker has a couple first-time players, including Brad Hamilton, who will start at wide receiver.
Although lacking numbers, Crocker said the Bulldogs have plenty of heart.
“They’ve been tremendous,” he said. “They’ve risen to every challenge we presented them. They understand the fact we have a small roster. We’ve got 16 kids and if we want to compete we have to outlast the opposition. So we’ve really been grinding them, and they’ve been pushing themselves, they’ve been digging deep. I think our biggest strength right now is that we’re a self-motivated team. We (coaches) don’t need to try to get more out of them. They give us everything they’ve got on every drill we do.”
Crocker will have no problem getting his players up for the season opener. The Bulldogs play rival Manton for the Little Brown Jug.