By Tom Kendra
MUSKEGON–Aug. 17, 2022: TK is sweating at his desk, air conditioner running incessantly, trying to figure out which high school football teams (aside from the usual suspects) are going to give their fans a fall to remember.
I was right about Whitehall, I had a gut feeling about North Muskegon in a new league with a healthy James Young, but Fruitport is the most pleasant surprise since “Rocky IV.”
Oct. 17, 2022: TK is freezing at his desk, furnace on blast, wondering where the last two months have gone and how do we already find ourselves at the playoffs?
Insert Jim Mora voice: “Playoffs? Playoffs?
This is a perfect time to reset, clean out an overstuffed and cluttered notebook and rehash some of the most memorable moments from the regular season before the five-week march to Ford Field begins.
The most accurate playoff prognosticators in Michigan are, and I kid you not, Snooze2you.com and an outfit known as Goosepoop on Twitter (What should we name our Michigan high school football newsletter? How about Goosepoop? PERFECT!!!)
These two outfits are predicting many districts featuring multiple local teams, with the most intriguing potential matchup being Fruitport at Whitehall in Division 4.
Whitehall plundered the new West Michigan Conference Lakes Division, outscoring its conference opponents by a final tally of 263-28, and will be the district favorites.
Fruitport, which was also told it had zero chance to beat No. 1-ranked Grand Rapids West Catholic on Oct. 7 (Spoiler alert: Fruitport 28, GR West Catholic 20), has been able to move the ball on everybody because the Trojans can run and pass equally well – something that very, very few high school football teams can say.
Cody Kater was a great player, but I was a little skeptical of him as a head coach when his Reeths-Puffer team was not on the practice field at our assigned meeting time, but rather sitting in the library while Kater read to them out of the inspirational book “Chop Wood Carry Water.”
After leading an incredible turnaround in Kater’s first season, including pushing rivals Muskegon and Mona Shores deep into the fourth quarter, I’m looking to pick up a copy of that book for myself.
Another great story is just down the street at North Muskegon, where seventh-year head coach Larry Witham (who I have always considered to be something of a mad scientist calling plays) now has a sophomore quarterback in Young who is capable of making all the necessary throws.
The result is a pretty darn good Division 7 football team, which proved itself with back-to-back, 20-plus point wins over Montague and Ravenna in the second half of the season.
Falling apart together
A Mona Shores fan and a Fruitport man meet at the bar at about 10:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1 – the Shores fan is coming from Rockford and the Fruitport fan from Grand Rapids Christian.
Shores fan: “We were ahead 27-7 in the third quarter, then we gave up 24 straight points and got beat, 31-27!”
Fruitport fan: “Oh yeah? That’s nothing. We were ahead 34-7 in the second quarter, then we gave up 34 straight points and got beat, 41-34!”
Thankfully, those nightmare losses seem like ancient history, with both teams rolling into the postseason.
Don’t You Forget About Me
I’m not talking about Simple Minds and their classic song from the iconic 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club,” but rather our area’s great prep football programs who all came up with emphatic statements right about the time that people might have been, well, forgetting about them.
Muskegon: Muskegon trailed Zeeland West 20-0 after the first quarter, then, according to ZW coach John Shillito, “they blocked the heck out of us” during a 36-12 scoring run. The Big Reds ended up losing, but when they block like that up front and on the edges, they are a whole different team.
Mona Shores: Shores and Grand Rapids Union were tied, 14-14, before the Sailors scored 29 straight points to close out the first quarter, then tacked on 21 more points in the second half, ending the game on a 50-0 run for a 64-14 win.
Muskegon Catholic: MCC was 1-2 and had to travel 650 miles round-trip to the Illinois-Iowa border to play Illinois state-ranked Fulton High School on a Saturday afternoon on the banks of the Mississippi River. To make matters worse, it was a driving rainstorm, but the Crusaders dug deep into their defensive tradition, gutting out a 7-6 win and turning the season around.
Oakridge: After getting humbled by Whitehall (join the crowd) and picking up a forfeit win over Orchard View, many expected a tussle with Ravenna in Week 8. Instead, running back Trever Jones and quarterback Matt Danicek led the Eagles to a 34-0 halftime lead and 48-6 victory.
Holton leads the way
Leave it to tiny Holton, the third-smallest, football-playing school in the area with 245 students, to lead the Lakeshore’s charge into the modern era of artificial turf fields in 2006.
Holton broke the seal and now grass fields are going the way of cinder tracks and telephone booths.
Item: Muskegon High did not play a single game on grass this fall.
Mona Shores and Fruitport both added artificial field turf at their stadiums this year, with Muskegon getting turf in 2020 – ending more than 10 years of postseason insanity as the Big Reds regularly left Hackley Stadium to find playable field conditions, including a memorable 42-7 win over Petoskey in 2014 at Holton.
Some of the most memorable “home games” for the Big Reds in the past 15 years were played, sadly, at Grand Haven.
I’ll never forget trying to find the Big Reds one day, finally hunting them down practicing at Seyferth Park, next to a cemetery, in a rainstorm. The Big Reds were trying to preserve the field at Hackley (and exploring other field options) and couldn’t practice on Wilson Field because of deep tire tracks from cars parking there all during the season. I ended up interviewing Coach Shane Fairfield in my car because there was nowhere covered to talk.
Thankfully, those days are gone for the Big Reds, but there remains a few “3 yards and a cloud of dust/mud” outliers as Steve Czerwon at MCC and, especially, pass-happy Witham at North Muskegon will be doing that “getting ready to play a game while simultaneously figuring out where we are going to play said game” dance on a weekly basis.
My platform, with Election Day approaching: “TURF FOR EVERYONE!” – including my own yard, eliminating mowing and freeing up additional time for me to dissect Lakeshore high school football from every possible angle.