EGR 5-Year Title Run Remains Awe-Inspiring, Product of More Than Talent Alone

By Steve Vedder
Special for

November 25, 2022

It was Peter Stuursma's first year at East Grand Rapids and while the wolves weren't necessarily knocking at the door, they were definitely on the prowl.

The tradition-rich Pioneers football team had slumped to an uncharacteristic 3-6 record in Stuursma's first season as varsity head coach in 2000, and there were subtle signs a community used to winning was growing restless with the program's direction.

That's when Stuursma bumped into one of his players coming out of the weight room, and the two had a quick conversation which he clearly remembers 22 years later.

"It was this senior offensive lineman and all he said was, 'Don't worry about it Coach, it's not going to happen again. We got this,’" Stuursma said. "We had just gone 3-6, and I'm wondering how we're going to get this going and that they might get rid of me. You never underestimate what people can do."

East Grand Rapids, under legendary coach George Barcheski, had been the dominant football program in West Michigan with 28 winning seasons over 29 from 1970-99, and 38 victories in 39 games from 1993-95, along with Class B championships in 1976 and 1983. After Stuursma replaced the retiring Barcheski,, some in the community were expecting more of the same when it came to success.

Those fans never dreamed what they would see as the Pioneers promptly pieced together arguably the greatest decade-long stretch in Michigan high school football history – and without doubt one of the most incredible five-year runs of dominance. 

Even that optimistic offensive lineman couldn't have imagined a remarkable 126-7 record over the next 11 years, a 40-3 MHSAA Tournament mark and seven Finals championships. Five of those titles (2006-10) came in a row, a feat accomplished just three times in the now 46-year history of the playoffs.

Pioneers converge on an Orchard Lake St. Mary’s ball carrier during the 2007 five-overtime title decider. The five straight championships were part of an amazing era that Stuursma and his players say has not diminished with time. They recall no single factor explained going 67-3 overall over those five seasons. There was talent, obviously, but coaching, tradition, confidence and strength of community all played vital parts. There were Thanksgiving practices attended by hundreds of former football alumni, dedicated fan support that included playing before more than 30,000 fans at least twice at Ford Field, and a program-wide attitude that, while some may call it a cliché, proved that success did indeed breed success.

"I'm in awe of the scope of things," said Stuursma, whose team used back-to-back Division 3 championships in 2002-03 as a springboard to later success. "Because we had won a couple times before it just started to feel normal.  We had such support the community used to think Thanksgiving break ended at Ford Field."

EGR teams would find all kinds of ways to win during the five-year title stretch. The 2009 team, for instance, barreled through its first four playoff opponents by a combined score of 164-29 until a 24-21 win over Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in the Final. The 2010 team had to win three playoff games by eight points or fewer to finish off its perfect 14-0 record. And then there was the wild 46-39 five-overtime win over St. Mary's in the 2007 Final during which the Pioneers had to score on all five possessions in overtime to outlast the Eaglets.

While teams always seemed to find ways to get the victory, former players remember what it was like to be part of a seemingly endless tradition of success on the football field.

"One of the things that was so special about East Grand Rapids were the expectations," said Luke Glendening, a running back on the 2006 team who has gone on to a long NHL career with the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars. "During the game I'd look around and see guys who had played here a long time ago. I viewed it as a privilege to have the opportunity to play before the alumni and community."

Quarterback Ryan Elble, who completed a combined 34 passes for 483 yards and seven touchdowns during the 2008 and 2009 Finals, also used the word "honored" to describe his high school experience.

"The culture was to win. Coach Stuursma made it fun, and it always seemed to take shape on the field," said Elble, who went on to play baseball at Miami (Ohio) "I think each team had different skill sets, but at the end of the day it was our culture and putting in the work to spend Thanksgiving weekend at Ford Field."

The players point to that winning culture over talent. Elble said he played with only one eventual Division I college player in linebacker/running back Trent Voss, who went on to Toledo. Nobody wins without talent, of course, but they point to many other factors as being just as critical. Because EGR coaches would always work juniors into the lineup, Stuursma said the program faced only one major rebuild, in 2007. That team wound up 13-1 and the second of those five straight champions.

EGR coach Peter Stuursma, kneeling center, monitors the action during the 2010 championship game. "We had some incredible players," said Stuursma, who left EGR in 2016 to lead Hope College to two Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles, three second-place finishes and a 46-15 overall record over his seven seasons. "We returned only two starters (in 2007), but we still had good guys who wanted to win."

The players say the culture started with Barcheski and the program's tradition. As Hope College's coach, Stuursma said there’s a similar common thread among schools he sees on recruiting visits: a winning tradition that, in Stuursma's words "screams excellence," from every corner of the building. He sees it the minute he walks into some schools, and East Grand Rapids had the same culture before he arrived. The past players say it played a major part in their careers.

That tradition didn't start with the five straight titles, said former quarterback Kyle Cunningham, who played on the 2002-03 teams and went 46-0 over four years from his freshman to senior seasons. Those two championship teams’ most recognizable player was running back Kevin Grady, who still holds multiple MHSAA records including for career rush yardage and went on to play at University of Michigan.

"We worked hard and had a lot of pride," he said. "I remember watching film of earlier teams, and I remember hoping our team could stand up the same way."

While the players point to tradition and community, Ryan Blair, a tight end/defensive tackle on the 2006-08 champion clubs, said talent remained critical – but EGR was outmanned physically in some of those title games. That's when camaraderie and the confidence that someone was going to make a key play took over. The Pioneers' remarkable run was teeming with such plays.

"Certainly we were never one of the biggest teams there, we never had a big size advantage in any game," he said. "But we had this camaraderie on every team. We had guys who really liked playing with each other. When things got tight we stuck together, and we'd fight to the fourth quarter or beyond."

Despite the long odds of winning a single state title let alone repeating, Stuursma believes there could be a team one day which wins six straight. That team will have the same characteristics of those EGR teams – the talent, coaching, tradition and fortune of catching timely breaks – but it can be done, he said.

"Absolutely," Stuursma said. "The only record I can think of that won't be broken is Wayne Gretzky's (NHL) scoring record. It will take a lot, but records are made to be broken. I think high school football is on the upswing and there would have to be an emphasis on winning. You would have to have a good path to get there, but I can see someone getting six one day."

PHOTOS (Top) East Grand Rapids celebrates its third-straight Division 3 championship win in 2008. (Middle) Pioneers converge on an Orchard Lake St. Mary’s ball carrier during the 2007 five-overtime title decider. (Below) EGR coach Peter Stuursma, kneeling center, monitors the action during the 2010 championship game.

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.)