By Steve Gunn
So much for the preliminaries.
That’s the case this Friday, in the new Week 1. LocalSportsJournal.com will have reporters and photographers on hand for three key conference tilts as the season kicks off – Mona Shores at Reeths-Puffer in the O-K Green, Whitehall at Ravenna in the West Michigan Conference, and Ludington at Muskegon Catholic in the Lakes 8.
Check out the preview of those games below, then log on to LocalSportsJournal.com on Friday night and Saturday morning to see how every area team did as the players triumphantly return to the field for the season that almost didn’t happen!
MONA SHORES AT REETHS-PUFFER
Mona Shores fans have been eager to have their team play again since the Sailors stunned everyone with their storybook run to the Division 2 state championship last fall.
The fans have plenty to be excited about, because the Sailors return six starters on both offense and defense from that championship squad, and have several exciting new faces in the lineup.
Tops among the returners is senior quarterback Brady Rose, who stepped in as the backup QB last year and led Mona Shores to stunning upset victories in the state semifinals and finals. Coach Matt Koziak has hinted that he might occasionally move Rose back to his original starting position from last year – slot receiver – where he can carry and catch the ball, and get promising junior quarterback Mark Konecny on the field.
The Sailors also return a deep core of receivers, led by senior Keondre Pierce, who had 16 catches for 274 yards last year, for a 17.4 yard per catch average. Senior Gary Humphrey is also back after catching six passes for 110 yards (18.3 average) last fall.
Some may wonder how Mona Shores will ever replace talented running back Tre Hatcher, who graduated in June. Koziak says there is no reason for concern, because senior Elijah Johnson, who has a small frame but powerful running style, is more than ready to take over. Senior Khyree Hamel is also expected to get a lot of carries.
Reeths-Puffer is a bit of a mystery headed into Coach Matt Bird’s second season. The Rockets return four starters on offense and six on defense from last year’s 5-4 squad, but many of the skill position players will be first-time starters.
Junior quarterback Ben Veihl will take over for standout Evan Moskwa, who graduated in June. Veihl worked out with the varsity a lot as a sophomore, and Bird thinks he has the potential to be a standout.
The Rockets have three running backs who will vie for carries – seniors Landon Mechem and Monyae Franklin and junior Wyatt Chesney. The coaching staff is hoping one of those guys will emerge as the featured back in a potent offense.
Mona Shores beat Reeths-Puffer 33-13 last fall. The Sailors have won three straight in the crosstown rivalry, and five of the last eight matchups.
WHITEHALL AT RAVENNA
These two traditional West Michigan Conference powers went in different directions last season.
Ravenna pleasantly surprised its fans with an 8-3 campaign that nearly resulted in a conference title and took the team to the second round of the playoffs.
But a lot of things are new for the Bulldogs, who only return two starters on offense and four on defense. The team will be led new head coach Justin Ego, who comes over from the Muskegon Big Red staff to replace Doug Samuels.
Two quarterbacks – Thomas McCullough and Kyle Beebe – have been competing to replace graduated standout Connor Kilbourne. The running attack will be largely focused on senior Steven Cook, and the top receivers are expected to be tall seniors Joel Emery and Chad Erickson.
Whitehall’s 2019 season came unglued due to a nasty plague of injuries, and the Vikings finished a disappointing 3-6 and missed the playoffs. The good news is that eight starters are back on offense and seven on defense, so Whitehall should be pretty good again.
The quarterback situation is interesting. Andrew Durbin started the season as quarterback last year, went down a season-ending injury in Week 3, and Brodie Fogus stepped in and got great experience over the rest of the season. Both are back this year, so it will be fun to see who opens the season under center.
Three running backs will be vying to fill the void left by graduated standout Kayleb Venema – seniors Marco Moore and Kris Dowdell, and junior Alec Pruitt. The Vikings will be deep at wide receiver, with seniors Mario Moore and Cayden Ritchie returning to their starting positions.
Ravenna beat Whitehall 41-13 last season. The teams are 5-5 against each other since 2010.
LUDINGTON AT MUSKEGON CATHOLIC
After winning four state championships in a row between 2013 and 2016, the Crusaders bottomed out and missed the playoffs in 2017. They rebounded with a solid 6-3 season last year and got back into the postseason.
With eight starters returning on offense and seven on defense, MCC is hoping to regain its championship form this fall. Key returnees include third-year starting quarterback Max Price, who suffered through the bad year in 2017 and missed part of last season with an injury.
Running back Dane Rutz also returns after rushing for a promising 267 yards last season. Others in the mix to run the ball a lot include juniors Nick Powell and Joe Waller and senior Lulo Mafahla.
Juniors Sam Convertini and Tommy Curtis will be two of the main receivers. The offense will be driven by an experienced offensive line that returns four of five starters from last year.
Ludington is a team that has been on the rise in recent seasons, making the playoffs three out of the past four years and finishing 7-3 last season.
The Orioles are expected to use two quarterbacks to replace standout graduate Riley Calhoun. They are senior Brad Mesyar, who is more of a pocket passer, and Trey Forfinski, who is more of a scrambler. Fourth-year varsity tight end Jake Plamondon will play a very big role in the offense after catching 38 passes for 675 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago.
Muskegon Catholic beat Ludington last year 34-21. The Crusaders have won six straight against the Orioles.
OTHER WEEK 1 MATCHUPS
Newaygo at Fremont
Fruitport at Hamilton
Grand Haven at Grandville
Lakeview at Hesperia
Montague at Hart
White Cloud at Holton
Kent City at Morley-Stanwood
Oakridge at Mason County Central
Muskegon at Holland
Shelby at North Muskegon
Orchard View at Hopkins
Spring Lake at Hudsonville Unity Christian