Holton’s Brad Epplett attempts to pull in the pass from teammate Chase Smith with Newaygo’s Bret Korytkowski providing textbook defense during the first half of the season opener for each squad. Newaygo came with the 27-7 win. (Photo by Mark Lewis)

By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal

HOLTON – Taking over the Newaygo Lions’ football team just a week ago, head coach Andy Busch wasn’t sure what he should expect when his team took the field Thursday against new Central States Athletic Association rival Holton.

And he didn’t get an answer until the second half.

With both teams going scoreless through the first 24 minutes, the Lions exploded for four second-half touchdowns to pull out the 27-7 victory on the Red Devils’ own turf.

“I wasn’t really sure what I’d see out of our guys or out of theirs” said Busch. “I knew (Holton) had some athletes out there and that it was going to be our job to shut those players down.”

And, except for one big second-half play, the Lions did just that.

The hosts, dressing just 15 players, received some very bad news before the first quarter had even expired. Team leader, senior Jeremiah Sergent, who starts at both fullback and linebacker for the Red Devils, had barely finished the game’s second series before he hobbled off the field.

Soon after, Sergent’s right shoulder was wrapped in ice. Besides a brief appearance at the beginning of the second quarter, Sergent would not see the field again the rest of the contest.

“He’s a tough guy to lose,” Holton coach Chris Hilliker said. “It just means we’ll have to coach even more on the fly. The good thing is, our guys have played lots of different positions. So, if he can’t come back soon, we’ll try to fill (Sergent’s spot) and move on.”

In the first half, neither team looked as though they could move much of anything, including the ball.

After taking the opening kickoff – an unexpected onside kick which Holton nearly recovered – Newaygo was able to drive 42 yards in 10 plays, down into the Red Devils’ red zone. Four attempts within the 15-yard line, however, and the Lions failed to advance closer than the Holton 9.

The Red Devils, sporting a veer look, made their first stab at a first-half score on their second drive. Taking over on its own 30, Holton put together a 10-play drive of its own, converting two first downs the traditional way, and earning a third on a Newaygo illegal helmet-to-helmet call. Muscling down to the Lions’ 27, a fourth-and-8 keeper by QB Chase Smith failed to get the Red Devils any farther.

Near the end of the half, Holton – by way of a interception of Newaygo’s Weston Butler by Smith – took over on the Lions’ 40, but failed to covert a first down.

On their next series, the Red Devils couldn’t take advantage of another golden opportunity. After taking over on the Lions’ 26 following a muffed Newaygo punt return, Smith was picked off in the endzone by Bret Korytkowski, thus ending the half with both teams failing to put up a single point.

But the second half proved much different.

Following a fumble recovery by Newaygo’s Tony Gill on Holton’s first drive of the third quarter, the Lions put together an impressive five play, 63-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard keeper by Butler. The kick was good and Newaygo led 7-0.

Following a Holton punt, the Lions scored again, this time stringing together a 10-play, 60-yard drive . Butler finished things off with a 2-yard scoring plunge with 11 minutes left in the game to put his team up. After a blocked extra-point, it was 13-0.

Holton looked to make a game of it, taking the subsequent possession 55 yards in five plays, and fueled by a 45-yard scoring strike from Smith to wideout Johnny Crowell to make it 13-7.

But Holton’s small squad was clearly wearing down. Following a  58-yard kickoff return by Conor Bradley, the Lions scored for the third time in the half, on a 10-yard blast by Heath Harrington. Butler connected with Max Harrington on the two-point conversion try to make it 21-7.

Newaygo’s Brandon Foster capped the scoring late in the fourth on a 37-yard TD scamper to provide the 27-7 result.

Coach Busch said that, while the win feels good, there’s still a long season ahead.

“The offensive line play has to get better,” he said. “I take responsibility for that. We’ll keep working with them to get better and be ready for the next challenge.”

For Coach Hilliker, staying positive was the goal.

“I expect the play of the offense to get better,” he said. “We’ll sit down with the film and see where we can improve. Then we will regroup and get back out there.”

Primarily due to its play in the second half, Newaygo outgained the Red Devils 262-168 in total yards. Harrington led all rushers with 119 yards and a score on 13 rushes.  Teammate Foster added 39 yards on six carries.

Smith completed 8-of-20 for 86 yards with one touchdown pass and one interception.

Brad Epplett led the Holton ground game with 60 yards on five carries, with Smith and Corey Sokolowski each adding 28 rushing yards.

Newaygo’s Bradley led all defenders with 12 tackles, with teammates Harrington and Foster adding 10 and six tackles, respectively.

The Red Devil defense was led by Brody Gould’s nine tackles, with Sokolowski and Epplett each finishing with six.