By Steve Gunn
NORTON SHORES – As hard as it may be to believe, a Mona Shores school board member approached high school Athletic Director Ryan Portenga in 2010, to discuss the possibility of cancelling the varsity football program.
A year later, Mona Shores was in the market for a new football coach, and Matt Koziak was actually the second choice of the committee that was leading the search.
An unidentified coach from the east side of the state, who is a “sure Hall of Famer who was coming off a 9-0 season,” had applied and was the first choice of the committee.
Of course the football program was never eliminated, and Koziak was hired over the candidate from the east. And the rest is happy history.
The Sailor football team, once the laughing stock of the area, went on to qualify for the playoffs for the first time ever in 2013. Then the Sailors beat Muskegon, won the O-K Black Conference, and advanced all the way to the Division 2 state finals in 2014.
The stunning turnaround of the Mona Shores football program is the subject of a new book by Portenga.
“Flipping Football: A True Story of Resilience and Transformation,” will go on sale Friday Sept. 11 at the Mona Shores varsity football game. It’s already available through Amazon.com. The cost is $20 and half of the proceeds will go to the Mona Shores athletic program.
“I put a lot of work into this, it’s been a huge dream of mine, but it’s not my story, it’s about Mona Shores,” said Portenga, who joined Koziak and several others at a press conference at the high school Tuesday to introduce the book.
“In the book I refer to Muskegon County over and over as the heartbeat of high school football in Michigan, and Mona Shores never had a seat at the table. Now it does.
“When you factor in the story of Mona Shores football, with all of its past shortcomings and heartaches, and you factor in the state playoff system and how hard it is when you’re down to rise from the ashes and triumph – this is a story that needed to be told.”
Writing in his own voice, and quoting many others close to the football program and the school, Portenga addresses the many hurdles that had to be cleared to turn a team that had never made the state playoffs into a winner.
He discusses the board member who wanted to cancel the football program. Perhaps that wasn’t such a stretch at the time, considering the many losing seasons, the failure to compete for league titles, and the loss of quality athletes to other schools.
“It was hard to picture the football program becoming a success,” Portenga said. “We actually had a team captain quit and college talent was leaving the program.”
Portenga writes about hiring Koziak in 2011 over a seemingly more qualified candidate, mostly because Koziak also had the qualifications to fill an open staff position at the high school.
Koziak, who had one year of experience as a varsity head coach at Muskegon, turned out to be the perfect fit, Portenga said.
“Those who know Matt Koziak will tell you that he knows what makes Mona Shores tick – he went there as a student, he was raised there and he played for the program,” Portenga said.
“He can empathise with the players and the program more than anyone. For that reason he was able to develop the important momentum shifts in the program.”
In the book, Portenga points to the first game of the 2012 season as a major turning point for the football program. After going 1-8 in 2011 (Koziak’s first season), the Sailors opened with a 42-6 victory over Muskegon Catholic.
They went on to post a 4-5 record, which was a major improvement, and interest in the program started to grow. The Sailors were 7-3 and finally made the playoffs in 2013, then were 12-2 and played in the state finals last year.
“That year our (9-12) football participation numbers went from the upper 60s to the upper 80s, academic production from the players increased, confidence increased, and all of the sudden we had a legitimate program,” he said.
“It showed the validity of Koziak’s program.”
Of course sudden turnarounds in sports always draw derision and suspicion from opposing fans, and the Mona Shores football miracle was no exception, according to Portenga.
“When we beat Muskegon Catholic in 2012, there were jeers and shouts, not just whispers, that the only reason Shores won was because we got a bunch of Muskegon Heights athletes,” Portenta said. “The reality is, we ended up getting one starting player from Muskegon Heights.”
Portenga writes about a lot of tough decisions that were made on the road to improvement, including the decision to start Tyree Jackson, a 13-year-old freshman, at quarterback in 2011, and the decision to drop Muskegon Catholic from the football schedule.
He writes about the thrilling state semifinal victory last year, when the Sailors, using their second and third string quarterbacks, rallied for a 25-24 victory over traditional state power Farmington Hills Harrison.
And he writes about the positive impact that a winning football team has had on the school and the entire community.
“Whether your school has a singing Christmas tree or a state championship marching band, when you have something great, you cannot fathom what it can do for the school and the community in a positive way,” Portenga said.
So in the end, it’s a good thing the school board never got around to eliminating football.