Two-year starter fights to keep calm pose in the face of the storm of success

By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – It wasn’t long go that, despite the best intentions by a parade of coaches, the Reeths-Puffer football team just could not put it all together.

Struggling season-after season, the Rockets managed just two playoff appearances from 1998-2012, after 13 such appearances from 1984-1997.

Photo/Mark Lewis

Photo/Mark Lewis

Those were lean years, indeed, with a dwindling fan base, lowered expectations, and where despair had replaced dominance.

Those days, it now seems, are firmly in the rear view mirror.

The Rockets are about to play this Friday their biggest game in over a decade, traveling to cross-town rival Mona Shores. Both teams enter the contest with identical 6-1 records. Both teams have clinched playoff berths, Shores for the first time in school history. And both teams are attempting to lay a claim to the Ok Black Conference title.

Obviously, a lot can change in one year.

One constant element of the Rockets’ recent resurgence has been consistency under center, as senior Garrett Blanshine is set to start his 21st game at quarterback. Blanshine, said second-year Rocket head coach Kyle Jewett, is the oil that greases Reeths-Puffer’s gears.

“We ask him to do so much in our offense,” said Jewett, who was a quarterback himself at Muskegon Catholic Central. “We ask him to be a game manager, of course, and that’s what the fans in the stands probably see. But he is also asked to literally take our calls and flip them, run them away from the (strong side) of the defense. We give him a set of criteria for check offs and he seldom makes mistakes. The game is literally in his hands and that is, by far, his strength. It’s not running or passing – he probably won’t wow you with his running or his arm. It’s his ability to call a good game. That’s what he does well. For some kids, that’s impossible. For him, it’s very easy.”

Although Jewett noticed long ago Blanshine’s QB potential – he saw him playing seventh-grade basketball and thought, ‘That kid is going to make a really nice veer quarterback.’ – the coach also said that to be an effective quarterback, Blanshine  must fight against his own instincts.

“By nature,” the coach said, “Garrett has a linebacker’s mentality on the field. He’s fiery, he’s outspoken, he’s emotional. Unfortunately, at the quarterback position, you can’t really be that. You have to be one way; his highs can never be too high, and his lows can never be too low. People need to see in his eyes that he’s calm and in control. This year, more than last year, he’s been able to keep an even keel. He’ll be the first to tell you his Achilles heel is that sometimes he gets too emotional and attached to the last play. To his credit, he’s fighting his own disposition. He sees, we all see, when he’s calm and consistent, that’s when we have success. The team has really responded to his calm demeanor.”

Photo/Mark Lewis

Photo/Mark Lewis

For his part, Blanshine views himself as an offensive facilitator, someone who must wind up the toy and put it on a flat surface.

“I focus on doing my job right, and then I try to get the rest of the guys on the same page,” said Blanshine. “Our offensive line is so dominant, and our running backs are such a threat, a lot of teams will just junk up the middle. It’s my job to run the play to the side that gives us the best chance. ”
The Rockets’ frequency of running plays actually gives Blanshine’s pass attempts a better chance of working.

“I realized that it’s my job to manage the offense,” he said modestly. “If I make as few mistakes as I can, and sit back and watch the running backs and the line do their jobs, the more I help out this team. There isn’t any need for me to to do too much, so I don’t.”

“Garrett is the kind of kid you know you can have a huge  influence on who he is, not because he is too impressionable, but because he wants to do well,” said Jewett. “He strives to play his position as well as possible, and that inspires the rest of the team.”

While the wider football world may not have seen the Rockets’ success coming this year, Blanshine said it was all part of the plan.

“Last year,” he said, “we really started this, and we’ve been able to keep it going this year.  We kind of got an idea what we’re doing last year, and we’ve kept working and getting better. We all felt that if we keep with the plan, it would pay off.”

When asked what was has made the biggest difference in the program’s sudden success, Blanshine said, “We’re more high-energy now,” which echoed Coach Jewett’s contention that teams mirror the coaching staff. “We try to bring that energy to everything we do now.”

Another big difference, said Blanshine, has been the coaching attention to detail.

Photo/Mark Lewis

Photo/Mark Lewis

“The coaches have really slowed it down for us so that when we do start going at full speed, we have a pretty good idea of what they want us to do, where we need to go,” he said. “They’ve taught us it’s the little things that help create the big things.”

With the emerging success, the fan base has responded in kind, filling up the Rockets’ stadium with cheering fans expecting their Rockets to win.

“The atmosphere here is now so different,” said Blanshine. “The students, the teachers, everyone in the community have pulled together over this team. We feel it everywhere we go. Before it seemed like, ‘Who is going to win tonight? Not us.’ Now it’s, ‘Good luck tonight. You got this!’ it’s all turned around.”

It hasn’t been smooth sailing, however. After starting the season with a 26-7 win over rival Fruitport, the squad laid an egg in Week 2 versus Hudsonville, falling 42-7.

“That game humbled us,” said Blanshine. “We didn’t come out to play, and they made us pay.”
Following the loss, Jewett said it was up in the air whether or not the team was going to respond the way the coaching staff wanted them to.

“The lesson was that you have to be able to travel, be able to play the same way wherever you play. For the whole team, and that included Garrett because he didn’t play well, it was good to see them acknowledge that ‘We’re not going to do this any longer, we’re not going to go to away games and not play well.’ For a long time, we couldn’t do that.

“From then on,” Jewett continued, “the mantra of the team has been ‘One Way’. Whether it’s home or away, or against a lessor team, our crowd being there or not being there, whether or not there are television cameras. It shouldn’t matter, you have to play one way, and that’s Reeths-Puffer football.”
Jewett added, “Since Hudsonville, it’s made me so proud that they have embraced that idea. It’s been good.”

Dominating wins over Jenison, Kenowa Hills, Grand Rapids Union and previously unbeaten Zeeland East followed, helping set up the showdown with the cross-town Sailors.
It’ll be a study in contrasts Friday night, juxtaposing the Sailors’ pass-happy offense with the Rockets’ run first, ball- control philosophy.

“Obviously, Shores has a good team this year,” Blanshine admitted. “They have a great passing game with great receivers. It’s going to be a blast to match up with them.”

“It’s wonderful for the City of Muskegon, for our two schools,” said Jewett. “Whenever Reeths-Puffer and Shores compete in anything, it’s a big game. For both teams being 6-1, there are playoff implications, home-field implications, conference implications. It’s a big game with a lot at stake.

“We tell the kids,” he continued, “the reason why you play the one high school sport that requires the most out of you physically and mentally is for games like this. It’s going to be a lot of fun. We just have to show up and play.”

Photo/Mark Lewis

Photo/Mark Lewis

Beyond Shores, at the start of the season, just making the playoffs was the team’s goal. Having done that, the rest is all gravy.

Blanshine said it’s important now to stay grounded and not surrender to the hype of the sudden success. If the Rockets win out, the conference title is theirs. Of course, Shores and then Muskegon will have something to say about that.

“We aren’t looking ahead to the (Muskegon) game or the playoffs,” said Blanshine. “It’s one week at a time. We’re having fun right now, so there really is no need to rush it. We want to enjoy this and that means getting up every week for that week’s challenge.

“I’m not satisfied yet,” he continued. “It has been a great season, but there is just so much more we want to do.”