Central Lake/Ellsworth Remains Model of Football Cooperation

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

September 24, 2021

The year was 1989, and Dutch Essenberg was a freshman at Ellsworth High School. Playing football simply was not an option. 

His Lancers hadn’t fielded a team in years.

Little did he know that he would get the opportunity to play football his junior and senior years thanks to the vision of Hugh Campbell and Denny YoungeDyke. 

Campbell, a renowned community member of Ellsworth, and YoungeDyke, then the football coach at Central Lake, started discussing a co-operative agreement between the two schools – located just seven miles apart – about the time Essenberg was entering high school.

Also at that time, Jack Roberts became the MHSAA’s executive director, a post he held for 32 years. If you ask Campbell, Roberts got there just in time. Roberts is credited with developing plans for smaller schools to sponsor cooperative teams, and his legacy also includes being a champion of 8-player football. 

The co-op produced great results immediately.  The Trojans went undefeated the first year and suffered only two losses the second. 

Today, without a co-op and the 8-player format, student-athletes at Ellsworth and Central Lake would not be playing high school football.

Central Lake/Ellsworth footballThat’s something of which Daryl Purdy is extremely aware. He was a senior lineman at Central Lake when the schools started playing football together in 1991. Today his son Garrett is a senior at Central Lake playing for the Central Lake/Ellsworth Trojans. And, Daryl serves as assistant coach for the team.

The Trojans share the honor of the longest-running football co-op in Michigan history with Manistee Catholic Central/Mason County Eastern, which also participates in 8-player. Central Lake/Ellsworth moved to 8-player in 2017, and immediate captured the Division 1 championship.

The Trojans are hosting Homecoming and Bellaire, a big rival, tonight on the gridiron.

“Without the co-op today, we would not have football in Central Lake - period,” Daryl Purdy pointed out. “Even with the two schools combined, we have to go 8-man to be competitive.

“As much as it meant to me to play football, it means even more to me to watch my son play and be able to help assistant coach … and be there with him and share the experience with him — it is just mind-blowing to me.”

The co-op is extra special for Garrett, knowing his Dad played on the first team and competed against the Lancers in other sports right after.

“It is special, that’s for sure,” the senior center and nose guard said.  “I am pretty good friends with everyone from Ellsworth. 

“We all have a bond that lasts after football season too,” he continued. “We are still a family after football.”

Purdy, the coach, agrees.

“That’s what amazes me the most … the kids even then and today,”  he said. “We are a family and friends during football season. 

“And then we go turn back to warriors again during basketball and baseball season,” he added. “It also makes it more special and even more competitive.” 

Central Lake/Ellsworth footballYoungeDyke, now retired, coached 17 years total at Central Lake. He was assisted in the successful co-op launch by Campbell, then the Lancers’ basketball coach and now president of the Ellsworth village council.

YoungeDyke cites Campbell as the key to all of the co-op’s success today. As a basketball coach, Campbell welcomed the additional training the boys could get in the fall.

“He’s kind of Mr. Ellsworth,” YoungeDyke said.  “His whole life has been dedicated to kids of Ellsworth.”

YoungeDyke insisted Campbell come on board for the first season to help the community buy-in process.

“(Campbell) goes, ‘Ah, I am not a football coach,’” YoungeDyke recalled. “I said, ‘You know what Hugh, you’re a coach. A coach is a coach. It’s the only way it’s going to work.’”

Campbell, who remained the assistant coach for nearly a decade, credits Roberts with making the co-op a reality.

“Denny (YoungeDyke) and I and some others in Central Lake had been talking about (a co-op) for a while,” Campbell said. “We didn’t get anywhere until the new MHSAA director (Roberts) came from Wisconsin, and he liked co-ops. It’s really helped a lot of kids.”

The blessing of the co-op by the MHSAA led to a new helmet melding the Ellsworth Lancers and the Central Lake Trojans featuring a Trojan sword crossing an Ellsworth lance. It was designed by the co-op’s first manager, 11-year old Drew YoungeDyke, the coach’s son. 

Drew went to play quarterback in the fall of 1996 and 1997 for the Trojans, alongside Nick Hopp, the Trojans’ current athletic director.

The younger YoungeDyke recalls his father wanting to make sure the Ellsworth players felt welcomed in the co-op and thought a new helmet design would extend the welcome mat.

Central Lake/Ellsworth football“The two mascots — the Lancers and the Trojans — just made it real simple,” Drew said. “I just took a lance and I took a Trojan’s broadsword, and I just crossed them.

“I was 11, and it wasn’t like I was a design expert then,” he continued. “I remember sketching it out in my little like Trapper Keeper. It’s pretty cool to see that years later.”

Many like Drew believe football in the two communities would have ended within five years had the co-op not been created. 

Central Lake/Ellsworth is 1-3 this fall after a 44-40 loss to Pellston last week, but also will be added to the MHSAA record book when this season is done after combining with Indian River Inland Lakes for the highest-scoring 8-player game in state history. The teams combined for 152 points Sept. 11 in Inland Lakes’ 86-66 win.

Today’s coach, Chase Hibbard, is thrilled to have nine Ellsworth student-athletes on the 23-player roster.

“If it wasn’t for Ellsworth, we would not have a team,” Hibbard indicated. “Every year the pool from Ellsworth is growing.”

Essenberg, who played receiver, quarterback and running back, liked the idea of playing for the Trojans even if only to get him in better shape for his junior basketball season with the Lancers.

Now Essenberg hopes the co-op will provide his son Nolan with a chance to play high school football.  Nolan is 11.

“We were all kind of nervous because you know it was a rival town,” Essenberg said. “I remember coach YoungeDyke saying ‘if you don’t like it, you can leave.’

“Nobody left.”

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Central Lake/Ellsworth’s receivers line up during a Week 4 game against Pellston. (2) Coaches (from left) Hugh Campbell, Denny YoungeDyke and Matt Peters talk things over with quarterback Drew YoungeDyke during the 1997 season. (3) Daryl, left, and Garrett Purdy. (4) Drew YoungeDyke’s helmet logo design remains a symbol of the community’s football cooperation 25 seasons later. (Photos courtesy of the Central Lake/Ellsworth football program.)

Working Together, with Neighbor's Help, Schoolcraft Teams Making Selves at 'Home'

By Pam Shebest
Special for MHSAA.com

September 19, 2023

SCHOOLCRAFT — If it is a home game for the Schoolcraft football team, head over to Vicksburg.

Southwest CorridorIf 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.

Schoolcraft’s Kolby Lloyd (10) works to break away from a tackler during a “home” game played at Vicksburg this fall. “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.

Clockwise, from top left: Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency, Schoolcraft boys soccer coach Jeremy Mutchler, soccer player Jack Curtis and football player Jake Bailey.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.

Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin has taken over the maneuvering of the teams’ home sites during his first year on the job.“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 ShebestPam 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.)