By Nate Thompson
The playoff whispers are becoming a little louder these days, since the Norsemen are just two wins away from the required six to automatically qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2009.
The Norse, 4-2 overall, can take another big step toward that goal on Friday when they visit West Michigan Conference rival Hart.
“One game at a time,” Edwards responds when he hears playoff talk. “We don’t want to overlook anyone.”
But deep down, Edwards and head coach Larry Witham can’t hide their feelings about what a playoff berth would mean for the North Muskegon football program.
“It would mean a lot to us,” Edwards said. “We have a lot of motivation to get there. My brother (2015 graduate Antonio Edwards) used to play here, and the best they could do was 5-4. They could never get over that hump.
“We want to be the team that does it.”
Witham said getting into the postseason would be a huge accomplishment on a number of levels.
“It would be huge, not only for this group, but it would be big for our youth players, our middle school program, basically our entire football program,” the coach said. “I think it would help restore some of that pride.
“When the team makes the playoffs, the entire community makes the playoffs. And the tradition here has been so rich in the past. Reaching the playoffs this season would help restore some of that tradition.”
Edwards, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound junior, and Christian Brooks, a 6-2, 210-pound senior, are two of the key players who have put the Norse on the verge of returning to the playoffs.
As running backs, they form a “thunder and lightning” attack in the North Muskegon backfield. Edwards is more of a scat back with breakaway speed, while Brooks has a much different style.
“Christian’s the type that makes his own holes,” Witham said. “He’s a thumper out there. But they complement each other very well.”
Edwards and Brooks usually rotate in the backfield, which means the Norse have the rare ability to always have a standout running back on the field. Most teams have one at the most, and when he rests, so does the offense.
“We don’t run a lot of two-back sets, so they share responsibility,” Witham said. “With them both playing both ways, it allows one of them to get some carries while the other takes a breather, and then they alternate.”
The two-back attack has been a huge success for North Muskegon. That was obvious again last week, when the Norse beat Shelby 49-6.
Brooks exploded for 217 yards and three touchdowns,on 18 carries. Edwards added 111 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries.
For the season, Edwards has piled up 708 yards on 73 carries for an average of 9.7 yards per rush. He has scored nine touchdowns and averages 118 yards per game.
Brooks has rushed for 482 yards on 58 carries for an average of 8.3 yards per touch. He has scored seven touchdowns and averages 80.3 yards per game.
“Chandler is a 4.4 (40-yard dash) kid, so he’s one of the fastest players in our league,” Witham said. “There’s speed and then there’s football speed, and Chandler has been blessed with great football speed. He can cut so quickly, and then just burst to daylight. I strongly believe he’ll be playing football on Saturdays (in college).”
North Muskegon has balance offensively. Receivers TJ McKenzie (21 receptions, three touchdowns), DeShary Warren, Brenden Moat and Brett Huff are favorite targets for the team’s rotating quarterbacks, Mack Young and Jesse Cooke, who lead an offense that’s averaging more than 28 points a game.
Edwards and Brooks also complement each other on defense, with Brooks being a run-stuffer at middle linebacker and Edwards starring at the team’s “Thor” position – a safety/linebacker hybrid.
Brooks leads the Norse defensively with 39.5 tackles on the season while Edwards is second with 29.5.
Edwards says the Norse defense benefits from athleticism. The players have the speed to fly to the ball, but also great size up front, with 305-pounder Jacob Achterhoff and 280-pounder Justin Edwards capable of stuffing ball carriers, he said.
Although excited about the possibilities that lie ahead, Witham continues to stress to his team that one bad night could derail a lot of hopes and dreams.
After playing Hart on Friday, the Norse will face a talented Whitehall squad in Week 8, then wrap up the regular season against a rapidly-improving Orchard View squad.
The Norse will need at least two wins in their last three games to guarantee a playoff spot. But Witham believes his team is ready for all challenges.
“We’re challenging these kids to seize the moment, to make it happen,” he said. “It’s a great group of kids and I’m excited to see what they can accomplish.”