Coach Comes Home to Lead Central's Rise
By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half
September 27, 2017
DETROIT – Thirty-three years ago, Lynn Sanders graduated from Detroit Central. And before he left, he made a promise.
Last year, Sanders showed he is a man of his word.
Sanders, 51, is in his second season as the head football coach at Central. Once a proud program under legendary coach Woody Thomas (who died in 2002), the program had wavered a bit. Coaches like Michael Thornhill, who took over for Thomas in 2002, Eric Smith, Robert Hunt and others have had some success. But stability within the program, especially in recent years, had been missing.
Many of the high school-age students in the neighborhood were attending schools elsewhere in the city. Now-closed Detroit Allen Academy, a charter school near Central, was one alternative. Open enrollment throughout the school district also allowed students to attend any school in Detroit, and many were taking advantage of the opportunity.
Since Sanders’ arrival, and because of his standing in the community, many of those in the neighborhood have decided to remain. Sanders and his staff have been able to make the Trailblazers relevant again, and there’s a renewed respect for the program. Central is 4-1 and 2-1 in the Detroit Public School League Black division and faces Detroit Pershing (1-4, 0-3) this week before taking on Detroit Martin Luther King (4-1, 3-0), one of the state’s elite programs, on Oct. 6.
“When I was 18, I told Coach Thomas I would replace him,” Sanders said. “It took a while.”
The rewards have come quickly.
Last fall in Sanders’ debut, and for the second time in school history, the Trailblazers won two playoff games in a season and finished 7-5. And they led Millington 20-0 in a Division 6 Regional Final before falling 22-20.
There had been success in the recent past. Central tied a school record for victories in a season with a 9-3 finish in 2010. In 2012, the Trailblazers began a run of making the playoffs in three of the next five years, each time finishing 6-4 – although the playoff appearances in 2014 and 2015 ended quickly as Central lost first-round games by a combined score of 107-14.
The Trailblazers took a sizable next step led by someone taking his first at the high school level. Sanders had never been a head coach, but he brought a long list of credentials while working with youth football. A 27-year veteran with the Michigan State Police, Sanders spent 10 years as the president of the Southfield Ravens, a Pop Warner program for players aged 8-11. He spent three years as a league commissioner within Pop Warner in southeastern Michigan. For two years he was a regional commissioner for American Youth Football (AYF).
Before getting the Central job, Sanders worked under coach Keith Stephens at Oak Park and then with Stephens at Southfield-Lathrup as his offensive coordinator.
Then there was a knock on the door of opportunity.
“I got a call from David Oclander, who was the (Central) principal then,” Sanders said. “We met and he told me what he was looking for. He knew of me, knew I was a Central grad, and he told me he wanted to turn things around.
“When I got here the team GPA was 1.9. The first day I called a meeting. I had all of the guys who wanted to play be there. When I gave that speech, I could tell they weren’t really happy. I was their third coach in three years, and I think they felt betrayed. They weren’t really interested. A number of them were looking at their phones, not paying attention. I told them here are my rules, my expectations and if you don’t like it you can leave. About half of them did. Fifteen stayed.”
It didn’t take long for Sanders to build upon those numbers. His association with Pop Warner and coaches in the area helped spread the word that expectations would rise.
In the meantime, Allen Academy closed following the 2015-16 school year and many of those students went to Central – including some athletes who had played on a Wildcats team that finished 5-4 in 2015.
Central didn’t have a freshmen or junior varsity team, but Sanders was able to gather 36 for the varsity. He has 32 this season.
“When I took the job I got phone calls from all over the place,” he said. “Coaches, former players, they all wanted to help. They’d do anything for me. I was well-respected, and the kids started to come. Instead of taking buses out of the neighborhood and going elsewhere, they stayed home. And they were good kids. I set some high expectations. Those that didn’t want to follow got shipped out.”
Sanders and Oclander saw eye-to-eye on many issues. The main objective was to instill discipline, and both came from a background where discipline was paramount: Sanders with the state police, Oclander as a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
Sanders looked to improve the quality of coaching his players were to receive in two ways. The first came during the offseason. He knew his players didn’t have the finances to go to camps, even if they were close by at places like Wayne State University. Instead, Sanders brought the college coaches to Central. Staffs from Northwood University, Eastern Michigan and Wayne State all came to Central to conduct a camp.
“That had never been done before at Central,” Sanders said.
The second was to convince coaches in the area that Central was the place to be. Eighteen said yes. Do the math: That’s more than one coach for every two players. It’s safe to say that’s a unique situation – and has led to an almost unheard of type of mentoring process.
And the players are reaping the results. Eight players from last year’s team are playing college football. Five players from this year’s team have made verbal commitments to a college or university, including El Julian Jordan. Jordan, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound quarterback who played his first two years of high school football at King, has accepted a scholarship to Western Michigan.
It was a big change for Jordan to go from a program like King, with 1,400 students, to Central where the enrollment is 370.
“It was a tough transition,” he said. “The kids in school were different. This school is so small, but I like it that way. I can focus more on my grades and such.
“I look up to (Sanders). He’s molded me into a leader. I lead by example. My first impression of Coach was a positive one, and that’s good.”
Jordan has had a fine season to this point, completing 56 of 95 attempts for 1,239 yards, 13 touchdowns and with no interceptions. He’s scored three rushing touchdowns.
“He’s a special kid,” Sanders said. “I don’t think anyone has put him in the position of being a leader before. After time, he knew he could trust me. He’s a phenomenal athlete. He’s a quiet kid until you get to know him. As we made our run in the (playoffs), the different (officiating) crews would watch him warm up. He can throw the ball 70 yards. And they couldn’t wait to see him in action.”
Other top players include a bevy of receivers including Jerodd Vines, TaQuan Snead and Brandon Cooper.
Central returned all five offensive linemen from a season ago including Jamauri’a Carter (5-10, 305). Carter, Snead and Jordan all played on the Eastside Raiders in the Police Athletic League (PAL) before high school.
Sanders’ stay at Central could be a brief one. He and wife, Kathy, who were high school sweethearts, have four children including three sons. One, Londale Sanders, is a junior linebacker at University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. They recently returned on Sunday after watching their son play in last Saturday’s 34-27 overtime victory at Jackson State.
Another son, Lance Sanders, is one of the offensive line coaches at Central.
“I don’t know how long I’ll do it,” Lynn Sanders said. “I wanted to turn things around. I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I told my wife three years, tops, and see what happens. At least Central is back where parents, the people in the neighborhood are coming back. The kids are getting better. The test will be against King.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Central quarterback El Julian Jordan warms up before a game. (Middle top) Lynn Sanders, left, and offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers. (Middle below) Jordan surveys the field looking for a receiver. (Below) Sanders and wife Kathy. (Photos courtesy of Lynn Sanders and Detroit Central football.)
Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com 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:
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.)