By Greg Gielczyk
League foes North Muskegon hosts Ravenna in a 7 p.m. game on Friday.
Both are members of the West Michigan Conference, which this year added Manistee and Ludington and forced the creation of two divisions, the Lakes and Rivers.
In fact, the Norsemen’s first-ever football game in program history came against the Bulldogs back in the 1930s, and present North Muskegon coach Larry Witham’s uncle, Joe, scored the very first touchdown for the Norse against Ravenna.
This will be the fourth time in two years the two have played, with the Norse losing to the Bulldogs twice last year, once in the regular season and then in a 7-6 heartbreaker in the playoffs.
North Muskegon (8-1) took down the Bulldogs (6-3) in Week 7, 28-7, and are preparing to meet them in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year.
“We know it’s going to be a heck of a game, and a heck of an atmosphere at our place,” Witham said. “We’re really happy for our kids and our community, to take part in something like this. It was our homecoming when we played them in the regular season and the place was packed. Being able to play at home in the playoffs, in front of all your fans, is a great moment.”
Ravenna is a spread team on offense, employing a lot of full wide receiver looks, largely because Bulldogs quarterback Hunter Hogan is an electric athlete, according to Witham.
“Every time he touches the ball, he can take it the distance,” Witham said. “We have to keep him under wraps, and make sure his legs don’t beat us, because he’s something special with the ball in his hands. He’s a do-it-all type of an athlete … he runs it, throws it and plays safety on their defense and is constantly hawking the ball, and sniffing around the line of scrimmage because of his speed.”
But the Bulldogs have other weapons, including Drew Mabrito, who may not be as explosive as Hogan, but is a very powerful runner.
Mabrito is all over in the Bulldogs’ formations, lining up everywhere from wide out to running back alongside Hunter. He tends to be Hunter’s favorite receiver when they throw the ball.
Ravenna is young up front, but the Bulldogs have improved from game to game and are playing exceptionally well down the stretch.
“They’re scary good,” added Witham. “When they touch the ball, they have some explosiveness to them.”
Witham said the Bulldogs are very aggressive on defense, usually lining up in a kind of hybride 4-4 formation.
“They always have four guys down … that’s pretty consistent,” said Witham. “But, their linebackers are all over the place. They bring stunts up the middle, they bring stunts off the edge. We’ve seen them bring Hunter Hogan off the edge. They play some man from time to time. So, they’re very aggressive in obvious enough situations to where we can almost kind of guess when they are going to come.
Norse quarterback James Young has had a stellar season, completing 128-of-178 passes for 25 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
TJ Byard is the leading receiver with 26 catches for 586 yards (22.5-yard average) and 10 touchdowns. Carsen Moat has 24 receptions for 330 yards (13.8 average) and five scores, while Ben Meyers follows with 18 catches for 293 and four touchdowns.
Denny Belmonte leads the Norse in rushing with 324 yards on 53 carries and seven touchdowns, followed by Meyers with 261 on 29 attempts and four touchdowns. Young also has four rushing touchdowns and August Gerardi three.
Sam Gallo, 6-3, 230, is a real force at defensive end and leads the Norse with 73 tackles (26 solo stops), 5.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. Kyle Huff has 53 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, Drew Bartos has 35 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss and Meyers has made 6.5 tackles for loss and 30 overall.
“It’s really going to come down to turnovers and big plays,” said Witham. “Most games like this do. Who can reduce the turnovers and keep the big play at bay? We have to be disciplined against somebody like Hunter Hogan. We have to keep him inside the hash marks and not let him get to the edges.”
The Norse are averaging 39.8 points a game and allowing just 8, while the Bulldogs are scoring at a 36.7 clip per game and giving up 21.5.
Lake City plays Ithaca in the other pre-district contest Friday night, with the winners meeting in the district final.