After learning from some smart mentors, Coach Dan Start has Spring Lake football on the rise

By Nate Thompson
LocalSportsJournal.com

SPRING LAKE – Dan Start has been exposed to some pretty smart coaches throughout his football career, and paid close attention so he could learn as much as possible.

It started during Start’s playing days at Grandville High School, where Coach Irv Sigler Jr. led the Bulldogs. Sigler Jr. grew up in a football household with his father, Irv Sr., a state championship coach who is generally considered the master of the Wing-T offense in the state of Michigan.

Dan Start. Photo/Kelly Gates

After graduating from Grandville and Grand Valley State University, Start spent a few years teaching in Florida and became an offensive coordinator at high schools in Boynton Beach and Jupiter.

His offensive knowledge expanded from the Wing-T to the spread while in Florida, but more importantly, he continued to learn from outstanding head coaches on how to lead a program. 

Five years ago he finally got the chance to apply all the knowledge he soaked up when he became the head coach at Spring Lake High School.

Despite winning just two games over his first two seasons, Start has started to turn the Spring Lake program into a steady winner, with playoff appearances in each of the last three seasons.

This year the Lakers are 5-2 so far, have a four-game winning streak, and last week won their first playoff game since 2001.

“The Xs and Os change and evolve over the years, but the biggest thing I tried to take away from all those coaches was not so much any style of offense or defense, but the way I wanted to run a program,” Start said. “Just how to be a leader and how to motivate kids to get the most of their potential.”

Spring Lake Coach Dan Start talks with Steve Ready before a game begins. Photo/Kelly Gates

Granted, last week’s 48-0 playoff victory came against a 2-4 Fremont team, because every squad in the state was given a pass into the playoffs this season. But it was still a mark of pride for Start and the Lakers, who continue to build and improve, every week of every season.

“The kids were really excited,” Start said. “(A playoff win) was a goal we set three years ago and something this current group of seniors set their sights on.” 

The Lakers’ next challenge will be a second-round playoff matchup on Friday against Forest Hills Eastern, which is coming off an eye-opening 42-0 victory over a pretty decent Allendale team.

Forest Hills Eastern isn’t afraid to air the ball out. Its offense is led by 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior quarterback Cal Doyle, who passed for 148 yards and two touchdowns against Allendale.

“We’ve watched quite a bit of tape on them, and we understand we’re going to have to play mistake-free football on both sides,” Start said about Forest Hills Eastern. “But that score (against Allendale) was a little misleading. Allendale had a bunch of turnovers, and they moved the ball pretty well.”

Coach Dan Start talks to his Spring Lake team after a game. Photo/Kelly Gates

The 2020 season did not start out particularly well for the Lakers, who lost their opener to Hudsonville Unity Christian 29-12, beat Coopersville 33-6, then lost a heartbreaker to Grand Rapids West Catholic, 14-12.

Things started to turn around in Week 4, when they played Allendale, won a 38-36 thriller, and showed everyone how explosive they could be. The star of that contest was running back Steve Ready, a 6-foot, 205 pound senior who carried the ball 42 times for a remarkable 337 yards.

Since them the Lakers have strung together wins against Holland Christian, Fruitport, and Fremont.

“That game (against Allendale), we started to figure out how to best utilize our talent, and we started to figure out we were better at certain things than others,” Start said.

Ready was just one of the young student-athletes who began to seriously buy into Start’s rebuilding efforts three years ago. Those efforts were focused on getting more kids into the program, and getting them into the weight room on a consistent basis.

Lake Coach Dan Start looks though a playbook before a game earlier this season. Photo/Kelly Gates

“That was our focus the first few years,” Start said. “We knew we needed to get more kids out, and more kids invested in getting bigger and stronger to compete with the type of kids we’re seeing on our schedule. Going from the Lakes 8 Conference to the O-K Blue is a different kind of animal.”

Now the Lakers can rely on a workhorse back like Ready, along with other capable playmakers, including hard-running back Christian Folkert, big-play receiver Derrick Paggeot, and quarterback Zach Mitchell, who has taken big strides by completing a much higher percentage of passes this season.

The Lakers use multiple offensive formations. There are still some shades of the Wing-T offense that Start learned so long ago through his connection with the Siglers, but the attack has evolved over the years.

“I think you need to adapt with the times,” Start said. “We’ll run some spread stuff, but we’re heavy on using three backs, two tight ends and pounding the fullback. We don’t throw the ball a lot, but we’re starting to get some more kids out in space. That’s grown over time with the number of athletes that we’ve been able to bring up through the system.”

Defensively, Spring Lake has held opponents to 14 or fewer points four times this season. That success starts with Folkert, Ready and sophomore Alex Lee as heat-seeking linebackers, but Start said the Lakers have also been getting a lot of key plays from their defensive secondary, which includes players like Jackson Core, RJ Lisman, Andrew VanWalde and Sam Sheridan. 

“We’re starting to see the fruits of our labor,” Start said. “Through their hard work in the weight room, and coaches getting kids in the right spots, the players are really starting to shine. And with the way we’re playing, we don’t want to see an end to it.”

FRIDAY PLAYOFF GAMES

Forest Hills Eastern at Spring Lake
Ravenna at Ithaca
Sault Ste. Marie at Ludington
Harrison at Muskegon Catholic
Forest Hills Central at Mona Shores
Big Rapids at Oakridge
Coopersville at Whitehall
Holton at Fowler

SATURDAY GAMES

Cedar Springs at Muskegon
Clare at Montague
North Muskegon at Pewamo-Westphalia

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