Benton Harbor Writing Success Story

By Wes Morgan
Special for

November 5, 2015

Books are written about this kind of thing. Actually, one was penned 13 years ago about a Benton Harbor football team from more than 100 years ago.

“The Way We Played The Game: A True Story of One Team and the Dawning of American Football” was author John Armstrong’s ode to a Clayton Teetzel-coached Tigers squad at the turn of the century that galvanized Benton Harbor.

The storyline then was how Teetzel helped get the hapless Tigers back on track in 1903 while also evolving a more violent and dangerous version of the sport back then into one comprised of physicality and cerebration.

Benton Harbor is a different place today. Despite all the wonderful things the city has to offer, it has become known for crime and poverty. And in terms of football, there haven’t been many memorable seasons. Until this year, the Tigers’ last winning campaign was a 6-3 effort in 1989. Benton Harbor managed to win just 49 games over the following 25 years.

A new chapter is being written this fall, however, as the Tigers qualified for the postseason for the first time in school history with a 5-4 regular-season record. They stunned a quality Dowagiac team in a Division 4 Pre-District game, 28-7, and take on a 10-0 Zeeland West squad Friday in the District Final.

The well-documented resurgence headed up by 74-year-old coach Elliot Uzelac, a veteran of the high school, college and professional ranks, who thought rebuilding a woeful program while busting through a cultural wall would be a better use of time than the boredom and restlessness of retirement, has been the buzz of the Michigan prep sports world.

Being part of this season at Benton Harbor (he takes no credit), Uzelac said, is the highlight of his 50-year coaching career.

“When you’re younger, you look at things differently,” said Uzelac, who coached at nearby St. Joseph, where he helped the Bears compile a 6-5 record in 2006 after a winless season in 2005, along with head coaching positions at Western Michigan University (1975-81) and Navy (1987-89) and myriad assistant roles in college and the NFL. “Winning is so important. You want to have a proper salary because you want to feed your family. What’s the next stop? If I’m an assistant coach, is there a head coaching position available?

“None of these things exist now. This is strictly about helping people. Honestly, I’ve had the greatest time of my life doing this with these young men. Yes, it’s been hard. Yes, it’s been … (chuckle) really time consuming and we really had to work hard. But I’ve never been more satisfied and never felt better about accomplishing something with young men than I have this time.”

Uzelac’s hiring might not have happened if not for a persistent Fred Smith, who applied for the athletic director job on five separate occasions, finally landing the position this summer. Smith, nearing retirement, also wanted a challenge, and Benton Harbor had some kind of magnetic force.

When Smith was a student at Western Michigan University, his first student-teaching assignment in 1979 was at Benton Harbor with then-head basketball coach Earl McKee. Smith had a desire to coach basketball and requested an internship at Benton Harbor, because, he said at the time, “they play the best basketball.”

Smith was able to stay there for two more years as a full-time substitute but moved on to many other jobs in education, including stints as AD at Comstock and most recently Buchanan. He made a big impact at Buchanan and left the school on very solid ground. Buchanan is undefeated in football this year and is gearing up for a Division 5 district championship showdown with Berrien Springs. In volleyball, the Bucks picked up their 46th win of the season Wednesday in the Class B District Semifinals — a single-season victories record for the program.

Uzelac, curious as to whether or not Benton Harbor would join the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference, called Smith on July 4th to chat about the new league.

“In conversation, he told me the AD job was open,” Smith said. “A long story short, he talked me into applying. I had an interview July 14th, was offered the job July 16th, and on July 20th I signed my letter of agreement. I hired Elliot July 21st.

“This was the fifth time I applied for the job back here. A lot of people wonder why I wanted to come back. We all want to make a difference in kids’ lives. I think there’s a chance to do big things here.”

It’s a perspective shared by Uzelac. 

The morning after the Tigers beat Dowagiac, he addressed his players.

“You’ve given me far more than I’ve given you,” he told them. “That’s the truth. I’ve never felt this way before.

“I don’t think anybody realizes how bad they’ve had it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”

Six days earlier, on Selection Sunday, a Benton Harbor student died in a drive-by shooting. A winning football season can only change so much.

But similar to Teetzel over a century ago, Uzelac is making the young men in his charge to think their way through school, football and life — even when it pertains to new technology and means of communicating he doesn’t understand.

“Never,” he said when asked how often he uses social media. “I don’t even really know what (Twitter) is. Things are said on Twitter than can really create problems, especially in a community like this. You’re talking about a very tough community and the word ‘retaliate’ is used often around here, which we’re trying to change that attitude. You have to be very careful what you do and say in this community.”

A consummate professional in the press box, longtime Benton Harbor football announcer Greg Mauchmar‘s animated play-by-play this year wasn’t just a veneer. Gradually, beginning with the team’s first win since 2012 — a 14-9 victory at home over Battle Creek Central in Week 2 — his voice was being received by human eardrums in the stands rather than bouncing around empty bleachers.

Mauchmar, just one of many people who have done their part to embrace the football team even through extremely tough seasons, remembers countless games where there were as few as a 100 supporters in attendance.

“Everyone has rallied around this team and there’s a level of excitement that inspires us,” he said. “I can get excited because the people in the stands are excited and I don’t have to work hard to do that. When the kids looked up there and didn’t see too many people (in past years), you know how motivating that is. Sometimes you felt like you were preaching to the choir. We wanted more membership in the choir.”

This fall’s feel-good football story has grown legs. National news outlets such as ESPN and Sports Illustrated picked up on what was published by scribes around Michigan, spreading the story to the farthest corners of the country.

Messages of support have come in from all over Michigan and from as far away as California, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio and Illinois, Uzelac said.

The Benton Harbor bandwagon, it appears, is nearly full.

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Benton Harbor football coach Elliot Uzelac instructs players before a game this season. (Middle) Benton Harbor quarterback Tim Bell prepares to hand off to Jeremy Burrell during the Tigers' game against St. Joseph this fall. (Photos courtesy of Randy Willis/Harbor Photography.)

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.)