BY CHRIS DOBROWOLSKI
---- — The performance of one individual player probably won’t decide the Lake Michigan Conference title this season.
Nor will the strategy or tactics of a coach.
It’s likely to be the injury bug.
Whichever team can avoid a rash of injuries could be the team claiming the league championship as virtually every school is facing a numbers crunch in 2013, which makes staying healthy as important as it’s ever been for the seven teams in the conference.
“Staying healthy is going to be at a premium,” said Elk Rapids head coach Ed Schindler, speaking about his team, but echoing the thoughts of each coach in the league.
Most teams in the league will be playing with rosters in the upper teens or around 20 players. Ironically, the team with the largest roster? East Jordan, which has 23 who will suit up for the Red Devils despite only winning one game over the last four years.
No one is sure the reason why so few kids are playing football, though Kalkaska coach Jeremy Wilkinson has a theory.
“The only thing I can think about would really be the economy. The lack of jobs,” said Wilkinson. “I know people are moving to Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Wyoming. It’s gotta be the job market. People are having to move. The numbers are there at the younger ages, but just not here (on varsity). Our junior and senior class the numbers are thin.”
If no team is decimated by injuries, the top of the league should look similar to how it did last season when Grayling went 6-0 in the conference on the way to an undefeated regular season, with Boyne City (5-1) and Kalkaska (4-2) also in the mix. All three teams reached the postseason but were eliminated in the opening round of district play.
The Vikings bring back eight starters on offense and five on offense, highlighted by the return of the all-state quarterback-receiver duo Jake Swander and Tyler McClanahan.
“They’re looking to build on that success and getting better,” Grayling coach Tim Sanchez said. “We were far from perfect last year. Both those guys are good, hard workers. They dedicated themselves in the offseason. Jake looks really good right now. We’ve got to keep him healthy and I’ve got to call good plays, make sure we’re in position to be successful.”
Anchoring the offensive line is three-year starter Lucas Walesky (6-foot-2, 270 pounds). Michael Branch returns at running back to keep defenses honest in Grayling’s high-octane offense. Branch also returns to one linebacker spot, but Grayling is seeking to fill the holes from graduation that took more than half of the team’s starters.
“Some of the guys on defense who didn’t start got playing time,” said Sanchez. “We’re looking for them to have their year to shine.”
The Ramblers were one of the younger teams in the league last year and they remain a youthful bunch despite the amount of success they had last season.
“There are concerns,” said head coach Dave Hills. “No. 1, we’re still young and No. 2 we’re not real deep. Hopefully we can built on the success of last year, but a lot of factors go into success and you can’t assume you’ll replicate those things.”
Boyne has only five seniors on its roster, with three of them being returning starters in center Zach Wandrie, halfback/defensive back Brad Fouchey and safety Jordan Wilmont. Juniors who started last season include quarterback Corey Redman, running back/defensive back Maceo Vroman, tight end/linebacker Max Cuper and defensive end Connor Beebe. Fullback Malik Smith returns after starting at the position as a freshman.
“We’ll be a good football team, but we don’t know how good,” said Hills. “My focus and the team’s focus every day is to try and get better.”
The Blazers broke through with the school’s first playoff appearance in 10 years and had one of the best squads in school history last season. The challenge will be replacing the 12 seniors who were lost. Among them are four of the team’s five starters on the offensive line and all-state running back Zach Hill, who is now playing at Hillsdale.
“We had a good group of kids. We have some big holes to fill,” said Wilkinson.
Fortunately for the Blazers the cupboard is not bare. Will Noble is back at quarterback for his third season on the varsity. He’s joined by an experienced bunch in the offensive backfield that includes Kaleb Hauser, a fourth-year player who is being counted on to pick up the slack for the loss of Hill. Gavin Uitvlugt is back for his third year on the varsity at another halfback position. The receiving corps could play a vital role as the Blazers hope to avoid having team’s stack the box. Kameron Cavanaugh, Justus Holtz, Tristan Hart, Dillon Pinney and Josh Hill all have good hands and decent speed. Guard Nick Mitchell, who squats 500 pounds, is the lone returner on the offensive line.
Defensively, Kalkaska is a more veteran unit with seven starters back, including Hauser and Uitvlugt at the linebacker spots.
“This year it’s just kind of building off the successes of last year. Not just make the playoffs but go farther in the playoffs,” said Wilkinson. “As long as we don’t have any injuries we’re gonna be alright. You get a couple injuries, especially at key positions you’re really scrambling.”
The Rams took baby steps to respectability last year, winning three games, as they seek their first winning season since 2000. The tools are in place to win more, too. Running back/linebacker David Walker made news this summer on the college camp circuit and is drawing interest from several Division 1 schools. Other top seniors include RB/LB Aaron Burdick, TE/LB Justin Roberts, OT/LB Cole Selewski and OG/LB Charlie Silveus, who is a four-year starter.
Senior QB Peter Kelbel steps into his position after transferring from Petoskey. Harbor Springs has experience in the backfield, but its line will be young. Sophomore Jacob Lechner is expected to be a fixture at tackle.
Harbor Springs head coach Rob Walker, who is in his second year, said the key for his team will be turning close losses into wins this year.
“We need to figure out how to win in the end,” he said. “That’s a process and that’s what we’re working on. I think we took a lot of the beginning steps and now we have to win games.”
The Elks have finished 4-5 in back-to-back seasons after reaching the postseason in five straight seasons. If Elk Rapids gets back to the playoffs it will have to follow the model used by Grayling and Boyne City last year and do it with a young squad. Only five seniors are listed on the roster and the team has a roster filled with talent from the junior class.
Returning players include Kole Douglas at free safety, running back Thais Grays and offensive linemen Ryan Bush and Dillon Thompson.
Junior Adam Troutman is the new quarterback after starting there on the junior varsity. Another junior, Logan Sentieri was the leading rusher on that JV team.
“We’ve got decent speed. We’re a little small,” said Schindler. “We’ve got a couple of big guys on the line.”
Junior James Mogford weighs in at 245, while Thompson is 240 and Bush 225, giving the Elks some beef up front.
“We’re going to have to out-quick people. We’re going to have to be smarter than people,” said Schindler.
The Elks’ main goal for this season? Get back to the playoffs.
“That’s the carrot,” he said. “That gives us something to strive for. Anything else would be gravy.”
There hasn’t been much success at the varsity level for East Jordan in a few years, but head coach Allan Peterson can’t help but think back to when he coached the group he’s got now at the junior high level and they won a lot of games.
“We have a nucleus there that still believes that there is something going on,” said Peterson. “I think we’re on our way forward.”
Peterson has ditched the spread offense for a return to a power game. He thinks that will help his team immensely.
“We switched to a spread last year and that was a big mistake. We’re power coaches,” he said.
Fullback/nose guard Ben Walton is a three-year starter who is returning to the mix. He’ll be joined in the backfield by jitterbug Noah Baccus, a three-year varsity player and arguably the best athlete on the team. Tim Schut is another three-year player at halfback. Senior Dustin Hejka and junior Jordan Peterson are battling for the quarterback job. The offensive line has a wealth of potential with center Weston Swanson, guard Oscar Scheir, guard Nick Holt and senior tackles Will Harris and Jaden Hoffman.
Schut, a linebacker, and Baccus, a safety, are key defensive players. Swanson and Walton lead the defensive line.
It all adds up as a group that has Peterson excited about his team’s prospects.
“We’re really excited about who we have,” he said. “This is a bunch of kids that just don’t know how to win (at the varsity level). They are not going 0-9, I’ll guarantee that.”
Ron Bindi takes over after the Rayders slumped to 1-8 last year. The Charlevoix alum led Bellaire to the state finals in 8-man in two of the last three years.
“We really haven’t talked about last year,” said Bindi. “We’ve thrown that in the past. We’re just looking at it as a brand new year. We’re starting from scratch.”
Returners who saw action in the backfield include Nate Moon, Todd Klinger, Bryan Noirot and Shane Sutherland. They’ll all have plenty of chance to shine as Bindi incorporates the veer, triple option attack.
“It’s going to take some time, but we’re progressing pretty well so far. It’s just an offense of repitition.”
Leading the line is Andrew Mitchell and Sam Eakes. Defensive backs Brad Rizzo and Logan Eckhardt are being asked to lead the defense. Key juniors include defensive linemen Sam Hovie, Devin Largent and Spencer Bruce. Keenan Borths will step in on the offensive line and Will Telgenhof will see time at receiver.
Bindi sees a lot of quickness and speed on his squad, but not a ton of size. At the same time he’s set basic goals for his first year.
“I just want to see growth every week,” he said. “I want to see the kids playing hard every week and just trying to restore some tradition into the program and bringing the community back to the Charlevoix program and having them take pride in the football program.”