By Tom Kendra
The Muskegon area boasts eight first-year head varsity football coaches this fall and, for some, the excitement of August continues on as the nights turn cooler and the green leaves start to turn into fall colors.
Zach Gropp at Kent City flew to the top of the “newbie coaches” heap at press time for this edition, as he helped the Eagles soar to a perfect 5-0 start.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Gropp, who is very familiar with Kent City as a teacher at the high school and a football assistant coach for the past 6 years.
“Our team chemistry has been awesome all season. The kids play hard and they get excited for each other.”
Gropp said he was happy to get his first game as head coach behind him (a 20-0 victory at Newaygo), and admitted that he felt some nerves that were never there as an assistant.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking, to be honest,” Gropp said about his head coaching debut. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of things to keep track of. But I’ve always envisioned myself leading a team and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s been everything I expected and more.”
Cody Kater at Reeths-Puffer and Jared Hudson at Fremont were not far behind Gropp after five weeks, with impressive 3-1 records.
Kater has garnered quite a bit of publicity by turning things around at a big school like Reeths-Puffer, which has 1,149 students and is the third-largest school in the LSJ coverage area (behind only Grand Haven with 1,919 students and Mona Shores with 1,256 students).
Kater and his team garnered some serious respect in Week 3, traveling to Muskegon’s Hackley Stadium and pushing the Big Reds until the final whistle, losing 28-20. The following week, the Rockets pulled out a thrilling home overtime win, 35-29, over Grand Rapids Union.
“It’s exciting to see our kids be happy and full of pride,” explained Kater in the celebratory aftermath of the Union win. “Every high school kid wants that and works for that. We are trying to establish that Reeths-Puffer brand.”
The job Hudson has done at Fremont is every bit as impressive, considering the struggles the Packers have had in recent years.
Item: Fremont had three wins in the first four weeks this fall, after winning just four games in the past seven seasons.
Fremont’s only loss in the first four was a narrow 7-0 home setback to Ludington on Sept. 9, but tougher challenges loom ahead against the top programs in the new West Michigan Conference Lakes Division.
Gropp, Kater and Hudson are the area first-year coaches who have their teams on track for a playoff berth, which is considered the benchmark for a successful season.
In contrast, the honeymoon is over – and likely playoff chances as well – for Cody Mallory (Spring Lake), Jason Hill (Grant), Scott Force (Newaygo), Tyler Fehler (Hesperia) and Tommy Moore (Holton) – where things have not gone according to plan.
Perspective is important in these cases, as immediate success under a new coach is certainly the exception, not the rule. In most cases, coaching changes are made when the team has not been performing well. And even if the program has enjoyed some modicum of success, a brand new system with different philosophies, formations and terminology takes some getting used to.
Take Mallory, for example, who came down to Spring Lake after a highly-successful, seven-year run as head coach at Cadillac, punctuated by an appearance in the Division 4 state championship game at Ford Field at the end of the 2020 season (Cadillac lost to Detroit Country Day). Mallory first introduced his highly-nuanced, triple-option, flex-bone offense to the Lakers this spring.
He admitted early on that he was calling the signals on both sides of the ball, because it wasn’t only the players, but also the Spring Lake coaches, who had to learn his system. Add in a tough schedule against perennial playoff teams like Montague and Grand Rapids West Catholic and a slow start is not surprising.
Fehler and Moore had an added challenge in their first year on the job – with their programs stepping up a level or two in competition from the Central States Activities Association to the West Michigan Conference.
Hesperia and Holton have found it to be tough sledding in the WMC Rivers Division, with Hesperia getting blanked by North Muskegon (50-0) and Holton suffering a big loss against Ravenna (61-8)
But not all hope is lost for the struggling new coaches.
When conference titles and playoff berths start to fade like your favorite dark blue Levi’s from the 1990s, there is one thing that can keep kids interested, rekindle community enthusiasm and get parents off your keister:
All five of these struggling new coaches will have a golden opportunity to get a statement win in their inaugural showdown with their archrivals.
Grant visited Newaygo on Sept. 23 in the battle of M-37, Spring Lake hosts Fruitport on Sept. 30 in the Battle on the Bayou and Holton is at Hesperia on Oct. 21.
A victory in one of those games can erase many previous shortcomings.
But what if a struggling rookie coach also loses his first big rivalry showdown?
Take heart in knowing that (hopefully) in the fall of 2023, you will be just one of many returning head coaches, well out of the spotlight – while us media types will be fawning over a brand-new batch of overly optimistic newbies.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
Here’s how the Muskegon area’s eight new varsity football coaches fared through the first five weeks of the season:
Zach Gropp, Kent City 5-0
Cody Kater, Reeths-Puffer 4-1
Jared Hudson, Fremont 3-2
Scott Force, Newaygo 2-3
Cody Mallory, Spring Lake 1-4
Jason Hill, Grant 1-4
Tyler Fehler, Hesperia 1-4
Tommy Moore, Holton 0-5