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.)

Ubly Offense, Kicker Pile Up Record Book Listings During Championship Run

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

April 12, 2024

Ubly finished a combined 27-1 over the last two seasons, following up a Division 8 runner-up run in 2022 with its first MHSAA Finals championship this past November. And the Bearcats stacked plenty of record book performances along the way.

Individually, senior Brett Mueller made the single-season extra point list again this past season with 76 in 81 tries, and he set the MHSAA career record with 220 extra points over 232 attempts, 40 games and three seasons. He has signed with Saginaw Valley State.

As a team, Ubly was added to the record book 13 times for achievements over the last two years, most notably in the rushing game. The Bearcats topped 5,200 total yards both seasons, and also made the rush yardage list twice including with a sixth-best 5,148 in 2022. Their 90 touchdowns in 2022 rank seventh all-time, and their 85 this past fall tied for 13th, and they tied the record with 10 rushing touchdowns in a 2022 win over Reese and set another record with 84 rushing touchdowns total that season.

See below for more recent record book additions in 11-player football, and click the heading to see the record book in full:

11-Player Football

Dundee’s Ben Miller has a pair of basketball record book entries, and he’s also been added in football for scoring seven touchdowns in his team’s 72-36 win over Erie Mason on Oct. 20, 2017. A senior that season, he ran for five scores and caught two touchdowns passes.

Nearly four decades later, Howard City Tri County’s Mike Wagoner has reached the record book for his work on defense in 1985. A junior that season, Wagoner returned three interceptions for touchdowns – 65, 55 and 35 yards – which would have been second on the list at the time and remains tied for third-most for one season.

Jaxon Lippert tops the list of 21 who have returned kickoffs 99 yards. Lippert, now a senior at Walled Lake Western, joined the list against Davison during his junior season.

A handful of records from Warren De La Salle Collegiate’s recent run of Ford Field teams and also one from decades ago were added. Jake Badalamenti was added three times for kickoff returns between 96-99 yards, one as a junior in 2016 and two as a senior the following fall, and Marty Wyzlic was added for his 95-yarder in 1976. Mason Muragin is the new leader for tackles for loss in a career with 71 over three seasons, and he also was added to the single-season list with 31 as a junior in 2021, as was Will Beasley for 38 as a junior in 2020. Wayne Wright was added for his 16 sacks over nine games as a senior in 1984, and Josh Cox was added for his 100-yard interception return as a senior in 2012. Muragin plays at Illinois, Beesley plays at Princeton, Cox played at Central Michigan, and Badalamenti played baseball at Wayne State.

Pinckney junior Nolan Carruthers caught 16 passes during a 13-7 loss to Jackson on Sept. 15, good to tie for ninth-most in one game and breaking the Livingston County record of 14 by Hartland’s Greg Matthyssen in 2007 – a listing that also was added.

Ethan Wissner did some major lifting, or rather carrying, during Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker’s 28-14 District Final win over Montrose in 2022. The then-senior ran 42 times to make the record book, for 289 yards and three touchdowns. He’s continuing at Siena Heights.

Senior quarterback Andrew Schuster and junior receiver DeShaun Lanier formed a game-changing pass-catch combo this past season for Clinton Township Chippewa Valley, with Schuster finishing his career with nine record book listings and Lanier totaling six with a season to play. Schuster most notably was added for 212 completions on 301 attempts for 2,766 yards and 28 touchdowns this season, and 321 completions and 4,199 career yards over two years and 22 games. Lanier was added in part for 73 receptions for 1,132 yards and 15 TDs this fall. Junior kicker Juliano Haddad also earned impressive mentions with 10 field goals and 50 extra points – and he’ll carry a streak of 35 straight extra points into next fall. Schuster has committed to Grand Valley State.

Fulton’s Evan Barton has been added to the single-game touchdowns list after catching four scoring passes Sept. 8, 2017, against Potterville. He was a senior that season.

Saginaw Heritage’s Braylon Isom completed his career this past fall as arguably the most accomplished receiver in MHSAA history. His name is listed in the record book eight times, with career records of 3,837 receiving yards and 52 touchdowns over 34 games and four seasons, and with a single-season record 26 touchdowns this past fall over 12 games. His 91 career receptions rank fifth, and he’s also listed for 82 catches and 1,617 yards (seventh-most) as a senior and 1,428 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior. He will continue at Miami (Ohio).

Evart’s 24-8 run over the last three seasons has been its most successful of the MHSAA playoff era, and senior quarterback Preston Wallace has played an enormous part. He finished his 33-game career in the fall – he came up for one game as a freshman – on record book lists twice for single-season passing yards and touchdowns and on career lists for 662 attempts, 421 completions, 6,955 yards and 88 passing touchdowns over those 32 games and three seasons. The yardage ranks 15th all-time, and the touchdowns are tied for sixth-most for one career.  

The 2005 Midland Bullock Creek team was added for scoring 547 points over 12 games. The Lancers finished 11-1, their only loss in a Division 5 Regional Final.

PHOTO Ubly's Seth Maurer (30) carries the ball during the Division 8 championship win over Ottawa Lake Whiteford in November.