By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Friday’s second-ever MHSAA 8-player football championship game will feature teams representing different stages of the new division’s development.
Coming down from the north is Bellaire, one of the first schools to jump on the new format in 2009 and a major success since doing so. Traveling west from the Thumb is Deckerville, a solid 11-player program in years past that has gotten smaller over the last decade and made the switch this fall.
Together, they should bring an exciting conclusion to the 8-player season at Greenville High School’s recently-built Legacy Field, a tremendous structure comparable to a small college stadium.
Tickets for the 8-player Final cost $8. Can’t make the trip? Watch it live on Fox Sports Detroit Plus (Comcast channel 901, check local listings for other providers). Kickoff is 7 p.m.
Here’s a look at the teams squaring off:
Coach: Ron Bindi, fifth season (25-24)
League finish: Fourth in Bridge Alliance Conference
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 28-16 and 20-16 (Semifinal) over Rapid River, 48-0 over Owendale-Gagetown (Regional Final).
Players to watch: RB/CB Chase Small, 5-8/170, soph. (185 carries, 1,574 yards, 24 TDs rushing); QB Zach Smith, 5-11/158, sr. (29 for 73, 676 yards, 7 TDs passing; 389 yards, 15 TDs rushing); OL/DL Drew Bailey, 6-4/200, sr. (73 tackles), LB/C James Campis, 5-10/195, jr. (171 tackles), SE/CB Wes Villafane, 5-8/151, sr. (14 caches, 514 yards, five TDs, four interceptions).
Outlook: After finishing a combined 1-16 in its final two seasons in 11-player football, Bellaire is 23-8 since making the switch. The Eagles’ quick start included representing their conference against Mid-Michigan 8-Man League winner Carsonville Port-Sanilac in a non-MHSAA championship game at the end of the first 8-player season. This year’s team started 0-2 before hitting its stride. There’s no question Bellaire is a running team, with 3,413 rushing yards this fall led by Small’s 1,574. The team has thrown for 823 yards, with Villafane catching nearly half the team’s passes. Campis and junior Hunter Walsh are the big hitters for a defense giving up only seven points per game during the postseason.
Coach: Bill Brown, 20th season (154-60)
League finish: First in North Central Thumb League
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 32-12, 48-39 and 42-39 (District Final) over Carsonville-Port Sanilac, 24-18 over Peck, 36-30 (2OT) over Portland St. Patrick (Semifinal).
Players to watch: QB Nick Pagel, 5-10/170, jr. (132 carries, 824 yards, 11 TDs rushing; 31 of 63, 463 yards, six TDs passing), RB Corey Wagester, 6-0/165, sr. (136 carries, 820 yards 12 TDs rushing), FB/LB Chris Wolfe, 5-10/170, sr. (151 carries, 1,580 yards, 14 TDs rushing).
Outlook: This is Deckerville’s first season of 8-player football. But unlike a lot of others that have made the switch, the Eagles had plenty of success in 11-player with four seasons of at least 10 wins beginning in 2000 – when they made the Division 8 Semifinals and fell six points shy of reaching the Pontiac Silverdome. Their lone loss this season came in Week 2 to powerful Cedarville; Deckerville has rolled since although it had two close calls during the playoffs. The Eagles also focus on the run led by two strong backs and two-way quarterbacking threat Pagel, and will have a hefty size advantage thanks to guys like senior Kevin Hammond (6-foot-1/235 pounds), sophomore Cody Mausolf (6-2/240) and senior Zachary Bowerman (6-0/210) up front.
SCHOOLCRAFT — If it is a home game for the Schoolcraft football team, head over to Vicksburg.
If it is soccer, go to Schoolcraft’s baseball field.
Things are a bit jumbled in the sports world for the Eagles this season.
With a new football field under construction and a new elementary school built on the site of the former practice fields, the two teams have been a bit displaced.
“Along with our football field, we had three practice fields that were utilized by a lot of our youth programs, Rocket football, youth soccer and our soccer and football programs,” Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin said. “It’s taken a lot of understanding and flexibility from our coaches, players and our community to make it work out, and it has.”
Meanwhile, all four Eagles home football games will be played at Vicksburg High School.
If Vicksburg is home on a Friday, then the Eagles will play Saturday, including their Homecoming game this Saturday against Galesburg-Augusta.
The Eagles won their only “home” game so far, 33-14 against Kalamazoo United, and take a 3-1 record into Saturday’s contest.
The soccer team gave up its field to the football team for practices and has been practicing and playing their matches in the outfield of the baseball stadium.
For the soccer team, “It’s kind of an upgrade,” Applin said. “The soccer field they traditionally play on, they don’t have a scoreboard, they don’t have a bathroom facility, so we’ve been able to use the (baseball) scoreboard, the PA system, open up the bathroom building.
“The goal at some point is to give soccer a home, and we’re very, very excited about that.”
This year definitely has been challenging for the first-year AD, who credits Vicksburg athletic director Mike Roy with being a tremendous help.
“Mike Roy has been nothing but accommodating to us,” Applin said. “He’s been super helpful to me stepping in and assuming this scenario.
“The communities are so close, it almost feels like home for us.”
Roy said Jeff Clark, former Schoolcraft AD, reached out once the bond was passed for the new stadium last year.
“We had to make small accommodations as did Schoolcraft to make the schedules work,” Roy said. “By moving (Schoolcraft’s) games to Saturday, Vicksburg had to work with our Rocket football organization to make sure games were completed” before the Eagles varsity games.
Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency said his team has been “rolling with the punches.
“These guys don’t care where it’s at; they just want to play football. We’re all taking care of each other. What a great place to be when everybody works together.”
When Jake Bailey heard the team would be playing at Vicksburg, “That got me excited,” the junior offensive tackle said. “They’ve got a really nice facility. I know the school will come out to support us no matter where we are, but it’s definitely different.
“Good thing we don’t play Vicksburg, although it would be fun because it would be both our home fields. The new facilities and being back at our home field at Roy Davis (Field next year) will be really fun.”
Vicksburg is Division 4, while Schoolcraft is Division 7.
The soccer team was “just being a team player” in giving up its own field for football practice, second-year head coach Jeremy Mutchler said.
“For the soccer team to be a team player and get behind the football team will help the community get behind the soccer team as well,” he added.
The biggest drawback is that part of the current field includes a piece of the baseball infield.
“The only odd thing is it is a smaller field, still regulation size, but smaller,” Mutchler said. “Part of the field is in the diamond, so we have to play in the dirt and it gets tricky, especially when you’re trying to throw it in or just play down the line.”
The move has cost the team a few home games.
“At the beginning of the year, we allowed schools, if they didn’t want to play here, we would go to their house,” Mutchler said. “We had to go to a few schools we would have played at home.”
Maintenance supervisor Eric McGehee was instrumental in preparing the field.
“He laid out exactly the parameters, so I was able to send that to all the ADs that were going to visit to give them an opportunity to decide whether that’s something they wanted to help us out for our home games,” Applin said. “A lot of schools were more than willing to come and play us to give our boys some home games. A couple wanted to be cautious and play on a more traditional surface, and we were able to make those arrangements as well.”
In only its second year as a varsity sport, the boys soccer team is still finding its identity, posting a 2-5 record so far.
“We’re a very young team,” Mutchler said. “All juniors and freshmen. This is the juniors' second regular season. It’s all been a learning phase with maturity and sportsmanship.”
Junior captain Jack Curtis said he was a bit “bummed out” when he heard the team would move to the baseball field.
“The first practice, I drove over to our practice field,” he said. “No one was there.
“I drove over to the high school and saw everyone practicing (at the baseball field). I didn’t think a soccer field could fit on a baseball field.”
Curtis said in spite of the temporary move, “I’m just glad we can have some home games this year on Schoolcraft soil.”
As for Applin, he spent much of his career coaching basketball at both the high school and college levels and most recently worked as a salesman for Zeigler. His wife, Meredith, is an assistant coach for Western Michigan University’s women’s basketball team.
Ferency is appreciative of the work Clark and Applin have done to make this season’s changes relatively seamless.
“I’d like to highlight how great our athletic department is,” he said. “It takes a lot of moving pieces and parts to move people around and have a space for everybody.
“I’m really proud of our athletic department and all our coaches and kids for just rolling with the punches.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Schoolcraft’s varsity boys soccer team, including Nyan Wonders (15), faces Comstock this season on its field in the outfield of the baseball stadium. (2) Schoolcraft’s Kolby Lloyd (10) works to break away from a tackler during a “home” game played at Vicksburg this fall. (3) Clockwise, from top left: Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency, Schoolcraft boys soccer coach Jeremy Mutchler, soccer player Jack Curtis and football player Jake Bailey. (4) Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin has taken over the maneuvering of the teams’ home sites during his first year on the job. (Action photos by Stephanie Blentlinger/Lingering Memories Photography. Headshots and Applin photo by Pam Shebest.)