By Mike Mattson
Local Sports Journal

Imagine being the president of a company and getting laid off from your job.

Imagine your best workers fleeing the company and going to work for other rivals in the area.

And imagine being asked months later to come back as president of that same company to lead a batch of new, inexperienced workers.

It’s exactly what happened to Coach Tony Blankenship.

The company – Muskegon Heights Public Schools Academy System – hired a laid-off Blankenship in late July to lead the Tigers again on the football field. He was behind the 8-ball right away with a late start and teaching many young, inexperienced players.

A whole lot of hard work paid dividends Thursday night as Blankenship and the new Tigers defeated Mio-AuSable 25-18 in the season opener at Phillips Field.

I’ve covered hundreds of sports stories in my career, but this one moves into the top five. The Tigers proved to me that anything is possible with the human spirit.

There’s no way Heights should have pulled off a victory with so many young, inexperienced players in the lineup.

But they played the game hard for 48 minutes and received a nice standing ovation afterward from the many Heights supporters in the stands.

“This is one of the most fulfilling feelings I’ve ever had as a football coach,” Blankenship said after praising his huddled squad. “I’ve won games and championships and I’ve been in Rose Bowls. But to win under this kind of distress after only putting this together in three weeks and to win is unbelievable.”

The Tigers, who forced Mio into three turnovers, bolted to a 19-0 halftime lead. Mio made a frantic fourth-quarter charge that came up just short.

“This is a big win,” said senior quarterback John Stewart, who passed for 59 yards and a touchdown. “We came out and showed what we can do. We still had people doubting us and saying we’d lose.”

Heights dominated the first half and built the 19-0 lead thanks to a 23-yard TD run by junior Maleek Briggs, a 3-yard run by Donnell Covington and a 7-yard run by Quincy Parker.

Briggs led the ground attack with 150 yards rushing, while Covington added 92 yards.

Mio (0-2) opened the third quarter with a bang as Aaron Wood returned the kickoff 91 yards for a score.

The Tigers answered with a 25-yard scoring strike from Stewart to Jamarius Rule at the 8:09 mark.

Heights gave up some long pass plays the rest of the way, including a 36-yard TD pass from Bryson Devers to Seth Thomey late in the third quarter.

Mio capped the scoring with a 1-yard TD pass from Devers to Colton McGregor with 32 seconds left in the game. Heights ran out the clock and celebrated its first win as a charter school.

“It feels good to be 1-0 and to start the new school year off right,” said Covington, who also had an interception off a deflection. “I knew we could do this. We had guys step up tonight in major places.”

Heights displayed an impressive swarming defense that allowed the Thunderbolts minus-6 yards rushing. Damontay Johnson had a fumble recovery for the Tigers.

Heights also received solid play from its offensive line.

The Tigers had no turnovers and topped the Thunderbolts in total yards (292-144).

Overall, Blankenship had nothing but good things to say about his team, which had no film of Mio in its preparations.

Blankenship kept his game plan simple on offense and relied on hard running by Briggs and Covington.

He knows the Tigers must keep working hard. But for a team that had its first official practice on Aug. 13, Heights is off to a solid start while the learning continues into next week’s game against Harper Woods.

“I appreciated these young kids and their commitment to our coaching staff,” Blankenship said. “They won this game because of their hard work and they deserve all the credit.”