Bad Axe Sharp Again in Building on 2020 Success with 5-0 Start

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

September 30, 2021

When it comes to dishing out praise for the newfound success of the Bad Axe football program, those involved are doing plenty of finger pointing.

The good kind.

“I think it’s all the responsibility of our head coach, coach (Kal) Pokley,” Bad Axe senior offensive and defensive lineman Sam Hass said. “He was essential to our team – just his coaching skills and bringing us all together and getting us focused for our games.”

Pokley pointed right back.

“It really comes down to the kids and the parents,” he said. “The kids have really bought into the program. They’ve bought into our offense and our defense. They trust it, and they know it works. Because of that, we’ve been able to be more successful. They’re very hard workers, and they’ve been willing to put in the work in the offseason.”

They’re both right, and now the Hatchets are reaping the benefits. After a 2020 season that saw it win a share of the Greater Thumb Conference West title and earn its first playoff victory since 1978, Bad Axe is now off to a 5-0 start, its best since 2001. 

“It’s a blast to see all of our hard work pay off – all the hard work we put in through the offseason,” junior quarterback and defensive back Keaton Braun said. “I think last year, winning our first league title in who knows how long, and our first playoff win and everything, it kind of puts in perspective how hard work can lead you in the right direction.”

Bad Axe footballPokley took over the Bad Axe program as head coach prior to the 2020 season, after serving as a junior high and junior varsity coach the previous four seasons. He inherited a program that had a single playoff appearance (2014) since 2001, and just nine winning seasons during the playoff era (since 1975). The 1978 team lost in the Class C Final, but the three playoff wins that season represented the only three in program history prior to 2020.

But Pokley had coached the JV team to a perfect record in 2019, and saw the potential in the players within the program. While they opened the 2020 season with a 36-6 loss to Sandusky, Pokley’s optimism for the program didn’t waver, and his players backed that up, showing up early for a Sunday film session following that game. The Hatchets would win their next four, not allowing a “here we go again” attitude to creep in.

“As a coaching staff, that wasn’t going to be an option, so it wasn’t talked about,” Pokley said. “We had done some preseason polls, some meetings with the kids, and a bunch of the seniors from last year, they were very vocal early on that they weren’t OK with that, and they weren’t going to let that happen.”

The Hatchets finished the regular season 4-2, their other loss coming against Division 8 finalist Ubly, and defeated rival Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker in the opening round of the playoffs before losing 20-17 to Hemlock in the second round. 

“It felt pretty good knowing that we had changed the culture,” Hass said. “For years, Bad Axe had kind of been on the (back) end of the league. Being part of a team that kind of flipped that around felt pretty good.”

That has continued into this season, as Bad Axe is perfect heading into Week 6 when it will take on another undefeated GTC West team, Reese. To get to this point, the Hatchets have ridden a balanced offensive attack and a dominant defense. After winning 42-33 in Week 1 against perennial Greater Thumb Conference contender Harbor Beach, the Hatchets have allowed just 14 points total over their past four games.

That defensive effort has been led by junior linebacker Jake MacPhee, who has 41 tackles on the season.

Bad Axe footballOffensively, the Hatchets have had multiple players stand out on different nights. Braun was the star against Harbor Beach, running for 165 yards and throwing for 146 more, along with two touchdowns. Griffin Meinhold (135 yards, two touchdowns) and Devyn Howard (116 yards, one touchdown) led the attack against Cass City, and Blake Talaski (82 yards, two touchdowns) handled things against Caro.

Braun is averaging an impressive 8.7 yards per carry through five weeks, and he’s well behind Meinhold (16.8) and Howard (17.2), who are spitting out big plays nearly every time they touch the ball.

“They’re focused, and they know they’re capable as long as they’re continuing to put in the hard work,” Pokley said. “Up to this point, they’ve really been focused on doing the right things – staying after practice, watching film, staying healthy and getting good grades. It’s really a blessing – I can’t say enough about this group of kids.”

The players said they’ve noticed a different energy around town and in their school, which has turned into big, excited crowds on Friday nights. 

“There are a lot more people showing up to our games,” senior offensive and defensive lineman Austin Volmering said. “There’s a lot more cheering, and that helps us get more momentum.”

The Hatchets are hoping that momentum turns into another GTC West title, and then a longer playoff run. They aren’t shying away from the biggest of goals, either, as they feel they can play with anyone lined up in front of them. After seeing some of their league mates make deep runs, there’s a bit of a “why not us?” vibe in a program where that once seemed unthinkable.

“It motivates us a lot to see (Ubly, Harbor Beach and other GTC teams) getting to that stage in the playoffs, and know that a small-town team can play football with the bigger towns and bigger teams,” Meinhold said. “It means a lot knowing that they can do that, and we believe that we can, too.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) The Bad Axe offense, including Noah Braun (53) and Draiden Romas (24), lines up against Caro during their Week 5 matchup. (Middle) Blake Talaski (20) pulls in a touchdown grab against the Tigers. (Below) The Hatchets are off to their best season start since 2001. (Photos courtesy of the Bad Axe football program.)

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)