As Football Launches Again, Reeths-Puffer Fueled for Fresh Start

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

August 9, 2021

MUSKEGON – A Reeths-Puffer running back tripped and plowed into the Kit Kat-shaped bags he was supposed to be hurdling Monday, and his teammates laughed. The offensive line coach wore a shirt, like line coaches always do, that read “No One Works Harder Than The Offensive Line.” The sun came out about halfway through, but the breeze kept the weather just right, and after a hands-in, all-together “R-P!” someone shouted, “I’ve missed that!”

The setting was as typical as could be for the first day of football practice at any high school across Michigan over the last many years … except for 2020.

Remember a year ago? When COVID-19 precautions meant little to no contact for the most contact-filled sport? When locker rooms were closed and footballs were wiped down after every snap? And the possibility of the season ending at any moment hung in the air?

“I was telling the team (last year) we could play our first game and the rest of the season could get canceled, so you don’t know,” Rockets senior lineman Marco Fields recalled. “The seniors only got to play half their season, and some got hurt.

“Now that we know we have a full senior season ahead of us, for us seniors, all we can do now is stay focused.”

Muskegon Reeths-Puffer footballIndeed, although there’s little debate that COVID-19 is still lingering, just about everything Monday at Reeths-Puffer felt differently from the first day of football practice a year ago. And although varsity head coach Matt Bird thought he might have an answer to what remained the same from 2020 … he really didn’t.

 “The same is … (searching for his thought)

“… that you are … (pause)

“Kids … (trailed off)

“Actually, I don’t feel that anything is the same,” he admitted. “Other than we have a football, and we have some things involved from that standpoint.”

Monday marked a fresh start for high school football across Michigan, after last season included multiple COVID-related delays before finishing up in late January – which followed also an abbreviated regular season during which the conversation was forced at times into much more serious topics than the highlights on the field.

But every first day of practice means starting anew. And when it comes to fresh starts, Reeths-Puffer is a great place to begin Fall 2021.

Start with Bird, something of a master when it comes to building from a clean slate.

Way back in 2000, he was an offensive assistant when Grand Ledge won the Division 1 championship, the only Division 1 title that’s been won by a Lansing-area team. Six years later, he took over the Comets program and debuted with back-to-back 3-6 seasons (which predictably didn’t go over too well) before rattling off 10 winning seasons over the next 12 including a Semifinals trip in 2015. That eventually led to a rarely-seen career move after the 2018 season – leaving an established power for a new challenge, as Bird took the Reeths-Puffer job and took on a program that was coming off a second-straight 5-4 finish but accomplished with just under 30 players on the roster.

Bird led his first Rockets team to another 5-4 finish in 2019 … and then 2020 hit. Reeths-Puffer finished 2-5, but all things considered there were plenty of positives to take away.

When practice started, Bird was just finishing up recovery from COVID-19. And despite the unpredictability the season promised, the varsity still managed to grow to 53 players. 

“As a coach you have to acknowledge it,” Bird said Monday, recalling 2020. “But the thing that is frustrating to me is you want to acknowledge it, but when you look at it everything was done so differently; it didn’t even feel like a season. At times you’d get started, then kicked back, then started and kicked back. We couldn’t do team dinners, we couldn’t do a lot of the bonding things we do as a group, and that hurt us.”

Monday was the beginning of another fresh start for the Rockets. Set aside that the great majority of COVID restrictions are off – the program is still emphasizing a number of hygiene and health-related concepts to help players avoid illness – and the football-related details provide plenty of excitement.

Muskegon Reeths-Puffer footballOn one hand, Reeths-Puffer still plays in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green – which includes the winningest program in MHSAA history in Muskegon High, back-to-back Division 2 champion Mona Shores and powerful neighbors Zeeland West and East. Grand Rapids Union, Holland and Wyoming all provide some intriguing possibilities as well heading into the new season.

But Bird’s varsity roster looks to push past 50 again, with 20 seniors including four returning senior starters on both sides of the ball. Fields is a Division I-caliber college line prospect, and the sophomore class is shaping up to be special with 6-foot-7 Travis Ambrose of particular note.

“I know every coach says their sport is the best team sport, but there’s something about football where you’ve got 11 guys out there and everybody can contribute,” Bird said. “The 6-5 kid to the 5-7 kid, and you can find a way to make that come together. I’ve always been a big fan, where it’s ‘Tell me that we can’t do something, and let me prove that (we can).’ … We compete using our strengths rather than focusing on some of the things that we don’t have.”

And there are lessons learned last season which, despite its wildness, should pay off. For example, last year teams were forced to focus more on technique with contact cut down substantially, and then rely on technology to cut down on face-to-face conversation. On Monday, Bird was recording his quarterbacks’ footwork with a tablet so he could share the video later over Google Meet, the new norm in communication but something Bird considers a valuable teaching tool brought on by the last 18 months.

The players, for their part, could allow themselves to feel a little lighter than a year ago. Fields and his teammates got to have more fun this time. And they were able talk about the expectations and aspirations that always make the first day a special one.  

“I’ve heard people are expecting a normal Reeths-Puffer, and some say ‘Rocket failure again,’ which is just us going 2-5 or whatever they’re trying to say,” Fields said. “But I think we’re going to take this thing all the way.”

“This is normalcy, to an extent,” was Bird’s take on the day. “And it’s just really nice.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Reeths-Puffer running backs hurdle a series of bags during a busy first practice Monday. (Middle) Clockwise from top: Assistant coaches Jari Brown (left) and Jeff Uganski work with the linemen; senior Marco Fields (front, blue sleeveless shirt) is among those working on his form; varsity coach Matt Bird works with one of his quarterbacks and their receivers. (Below) Bird gathers with his team at the end of their first practice of the season. (Photos by Geoff Kimmerly.)

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.)