By Mike Mattson
Local Sports Journal

FRUITPORT – Former Fruitport coach Steve Wilson was all smiles before the Reeths-Puffer football game Thursday night.

And his successor Greg Vargas was all smiles afterwards.

The changing of the guard went off almost like it had been scripted as the Trojans topped the Rockets 21-20 before 1,500 fans at Trojan Stadium.

Reeths-Puffer’s Johndries Betts-Render gets past Fruitport kicker Matt Boroff. Photo JD Scott

Wilson was honored before the game for his 23 years of service, 149 wins, 13 state playoff appearances   and a state runner-up finish in 2001. It meant a lot to Wilson as he hugged former players and snapped pictures with them during a pregame tailgate party.

“I am overwhelmed to have Fruitport do this special night,” Wilson said. “I’m humbled.  I appreciate what Fruitport did for me tonight and the last 23 years.”

Wilson was asked about his coaching debut at Fruitport in 1989 when the Trojans fell to Manistee 14-0. It’s a night he’ll never forget.

It seems Wilson somehow got his pregame schedule mixed up and had the team take the field at 3:30 p.m. to start warming up for a 7:30 game.

“We were on the field warming up and I’m wondering where’s Manistee?” Wilson said with a big smile. “’Finally we saw the Manistee bus go by and 5-10 minutes later they came walking onto the field in street clothes.

“We didn’t have a game for 2.5 hours and I couldn’t believe I put us out there so early. It was the biggest fiasco.

“I asked (assistant coach Larry) Rueger about it and he knew the whole schedule and never said a word. He said, ‘Some things you have to learn on your own.’ I always remembered that.”

Indeed, it was a learning night for Vargas and Kyle Jewett, Reeths-Puffer’s first-year head coach.

Fruitport quarterback Tyler Fehler. Photo JD Scott

Both rookie head coaches had their teams ready for the always physical season opener between the cross-town rivals.

Puffer bolted to a 14-0 lead — scoring on Johndries Betts-Render 9-yard run on the Rockets’ first possession and adding a 9-yard scoring run from Julian Munday after Fruitport turned the ball over on its first possession.

The Trojans answered with 14 points as Dakota Gordon raced 40 yards on a fullback trap for a touchdown and Shawn Knox put the Trojan fans on their feet with a nifty 83-yard punt return.

Puffer came right back and took a 20-14 lead just before halftime on Marquese Livers’3-yard TD pass from Garrett Blanshine, which was set up by a long kickoff return from Betts-Render.

Both teams slugged it out in the second half, with Fruitport putting together the winning drive at the end of the third quarter. Tyler Fehler’s 5-yard TD strike to Aaron Veihl on fourth-and-5 tied the game and Matt Boroff kicked the winning extra point.

Puffer hurt itself with two lost fumbles in the fourth quarter. Colin Butler recovered the last fumble for Fruitport and the Trojans killed the final 1:08 to hand Vargas his first coaching win.

Jewett, dressed professionally wearing a Puffer hat and green tie, made no excuses as the Rockets battled to the end and came up just short.

Former Fruitport coach Steve Wilson was honored before the game for his 23 years of service. Photo JD Scott.

“We’re a young football team and the program is brand new,” Jewett said. “Certainly this is no way to start the season, but there are a lot of changes. We have a lot of polishing to do. This will be the foundation we want for future years.”

Puffer will be just fine under Jewett. He has assembled a nice coaching staff with some guys I really respect.

Vargas, meanwhile, roared his approval to his huddled team afterward.

The former Trojan and long-time assistant paid his dues to take over for Wilson. He held up nicely this week surrounding the honoring of Wilson and getting the team ready for a physical game.

“I’m glad it’s over because we had an emotional summer and an emotional week,” Vargas said. “I was trying to do a good job for (Wilson). Definitely, this is a big one.”

Fruitport showed some character coming back from its 14-0 deficit.

The Trojans feature two exciting players in Fehler and Knox, with Gordon keeping teams honest at fullback.

It was fitting that Fruitport honored Wilson and is displaying a plaque of Wilson’s legacy in the south end zone near “Rueger’s Rock.”

Wilson was a steady influence at Fruitport and dedicated himself to excellence in teaching, coaching and community service. He and Reuger, who passed away in 2011, were a perfect duo that put their mark together on Fruitport football.

Jewett and Vargas will try to do the same. They hope to put their schools back in the state limelight and continue rich football programs in both communities.

Wilson had some advice for Jewett after knowing full well what it feels like to lose a head coaching opener.

“It’s more than about wins and losses,” Wilson said. “You have to coach with your head and do what is right. Coach what you know. Just keep coaching the right way. There’s no dishonor in losing a game.”

And Wilson shared some thoughts for Vargas, who he groomed to take over the Trojans’ program.

“You have to remain humble,” Wilson said. “You will not win them all. You have to enjoy each game whether you win, lose or draw. You’re not doing it for the money. You’re doing it for the love of the game.”