By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
KALKASKA – It was a whirlwind weekend for Jeremy Wilkinson.
The Kalkaska football coach led his unbeaten Blazers to a 35-0 victory over Cheboygan last Thursday. Then, 24 hours later, Wilkinson was inducted into the Northern Michigan University Sports Hall of Fame as part of the school’s Homecoming festivities.
“It’s a great honor,” the Kalkaska High School graduate said. “I remember 22 years ago looking at all the Hall of Fame plaques (in the Superior Dome) and thinking how cool it would be to be on that wall, too.”
Wilkinson, a wide receiver at Northern Michigan, still holds the career records for receiving yards (3,367) and touchdowns (35).
“This is a small town,” Kalkaska senior quarterback Hunter Suydam said. “Not too many (college) players come out of here, (certainly) not Hall of Famers. It’s pretty special.
“But he doesn’t really talk about it. It’s mainly, ‘Yeah, I played college football. Now, let’s get back to work.’”
That was Wilkinson’s mindset Monday as the Blazers began preparations for a big road task Friday at Boyne City.
With its 5-0 record, Kalkaska’s best start since the 1981 team went 9-0, the team’s generated quite a buzz in the community. But a difficult second half schedule includes games with Boyne City (3-2), Traverse City St. Francis (5-0) and Grayling (3-2).
It’s a stretch that promises to define the Blazers’ season.
“To be 5-0 is great, but our goal is the playoffs and we’ve got a tough schedule ahead of us,” Suydam said. “We need to focus on that. It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-0, if you can’t finish it off.”
Wilkinson has turned the program around since taking over in 2009. The Blazers are in the midst of a fourth winning season in five years – and a possible third playoff appearance during that span. One more win assures that.
“We know it takes one more win to make it into the playoffs,” Wilkinson said, ‘but we also know it’s not going to be easy. The next four weeks will be tough. We have quality opponents. We definitely have to clean up some mistakes we’ve been making the last couple weeks.”
Wilkinson is not surprised by the 5-0 start, which includes a 21-18 win over Leroy Pine River, a 4-1 squad that is ranked No. 9 in this week’s Associated Press Division 6 rankings. After all, the Blazers finished 5-4 a year ago and returned several players with at least three years of varsity experience.
One key returner was Suydam, who has completed 36 of 69 passes for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns in four games (the Blazers won one game by forfeit). Two weeks ago, he threw for 292 yards and five touchdowns in a 40-21 triumph over Elk Rapids. He was 7 of 11 for 103 yards and two more scores against Cheboygan.
“Over the past few years we haven’t thrown the ball a ton,” Wilkinson said, “but this year we’ve opened it up a little more because of the speed and athleticism of our skills guys and the size in our line. It’s nice to be able to throw because it takes defenses out of their comfort zone. Now they’ve got to drop back and try to cover instead of loading seven to eight players in the box. “
Suydam, now in his second year at quarterback, is still learning the position as far as reads, Wilkinson said.
“But he’s starting to put it together,” the coach added.
Wilkinson is quick to credit Suydam’s receivers as well as a line that includes tackles Luke Sexton and Seth Riddle, guards Jake Disbrow and Brad Berger and center Ed Davidson. Nolan Mitchell is the leading receiver with 15 catches for 265 yards and four scores. Hayden Zimmerman has added 10 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns while tight end Jake Kies has contributed five receptions for 51 yards and two touchdowns.
“Our line has played well and our receivers are getting open,” Wilkinson said. “Once the ball is in their hands, they’re making plays. The last two weeks we’ve had plays where we’ve caught the ball within five to eight yards of the line of scrimmage and taken it 60, 70, 80 yards for touchdowns.’
Mitchell’s the leading rusher with 258 yards and three scores.
Defensively, the Blazers are paced by linebacker Gavin Peterson, who has a team-high 32 tackles. Mitchell and Disbrow are next with 23 and 21 stops, respectively. Kies, a defensive end, has four sacks.
“Our defense has been playing great and that’s because they’re playing aggressively,” Wilkinson said. “They’re flying around. They want to hit.”
The Blazers’ roster features 18 seniors.
“Fifteen were on varsity as sophomores,” Suydam said. “Yes, we were 2-7 (two years ago), but that year of experience helped us.”
One of the seniors, receiver-linebacker Jacob Shier, broke his fibula early in the opening game. Shier, who has been on the varsity since his freshman season, still attends practice regularly to be around his teammates.
“I want to be here for the guys,” he said. “This class has been working together since third grade and it’s clicking right now. There’s a lot of talent on this team, more so than we’ve had in a long time. It’s looking good. Everybody’s buying in.”
The experience bleeds down into the junior class. Four juniors are in their third year on varsity.
“What we’re seeing on the football field is a credit to the program as a whole,” athletic director Justin Thorington said. “It starts at the top with the coaches creating a program that our student-athletes are really engaged and interested in, and working hard at.
“Plus, we have a giant senior class, which is always good.”
There are 29 players on varsity, 25 on JV.
“Those are good numbers for a school our size,” Thorington said. “But our participation numbers in general are pretty big. This year we added a JV soccer team, which, as far as I know, is the first time that’s happened here.”
Kalkaska coaches also participated this summer in a training program through Michigan State called Spartan Performance. The program, according to the school’s website, is designed to enhance athletic development and sports performance through a multidisciplinary approach that includes physical training, recovery, nutrition, mental skills and athletic health.
Michigan State conducted a two-day in-service with the coaching staff, then came back for a follow-up.
“It’s collegiate-level training based on research,” Thorington said. “It’s more than just strength training, it’s speed and agility, nutrition, sports psychology. They did training with our female sports coaches on ACL strength and tear prevention. We’re hitting all the facets.
“Our football staff really spearheaded it and ran with it. We only had a couple weeks to implement it, but this offseason we’ll have the entire year to do it. We’re always thinking of ways to get a competitive advantage.”
That said, Thorington added that wins and losses are not the only way to gauge success.
“Our slogan for this year (in the athletic department) is ‘Embrace the Process,’” he said. “We’re not going to concentrate on the results, the wins and losses. That’s not why we’re here. Instead of worrying about championships, we’re going to worry about developing champions.”
One can lead to the other, though, and that’s what the Blazers are hoping.
And as Thorington alluded, it all starts at the top with Wilkinson, who is all about team.
That was evident over the weekend when he first saw his Hall of Fame plaque that listed his individual accomplishments.
“It took a lot of people to make it happen – teammates, coaches, family, friends,” he said. “I didn’t do all the work myself. It’s (induction) an individual honor, but it doesn’t take into account that I had the MIFC Player of the Year at quarterback (Matt Hoard) in 1996. We also had the Defensive Player of the Year (Jovan Dewitt). A lot of people played a huge role in this.”
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. 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) Kalkaska junior Nolan Mitchell (5) looks for a hole against Elk Rapids this season, with Luke Sexton blocking. (Middle) Kalkaska football coach Jeremy Wilkinson. (Below) Senior quarterback Hunter Suydam rolls left looking for a receiver against Leroy Pine River. (Photos by Greg Fast.)
Separated by 527 travel miles – whether over Mackinac Bridge or around Lake Michigan, the Novara family celebrated nearly parallel football successes this fall.
At Portland, John Novara completed his 25th season as head coach leading the Raiders to a 12-1 record – their best since finishing Division 5 runner-up in 2018, and a second-straight Capital Area Activities Conference White championship on the way to reaching the Division 4 Semifinals.
At Kingsford, fifth-year coach Mark Novara led the Flivvers to a 10-2 record – their best since posting the same in 2004. Kingsford shared the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title and won a Division 5 District title, its first District championship since 2009.
John Novara graduated from Iron Mountain in 1989, and younger brother Mark graduated from Kingsford in 1993.
Similarly parallel, both teams were quarterbacked by Novaras. Dominic Novara directed the Raiders’ attack, and cousin Nic Novara led the Flivvers. Both are juniors. (Mark Novara was a Division III All-American at quarterback at Lakeland College in Wisconsin.)
One more connection: Portland athletic director Kevin Veale quarterbacked the Iron Mountain teams with John Novara as tight end long before they worked together downstate. Veale’s nephew Garrett Veale was a standout two-way lineman for Mark Novara and Kingsford this fall.
Small gesture, memorable connection
Dante DeGrazia’s senior season was sadly short-lived this fall, as he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of South Lyon East’s opening game against White Lake Lakeland at Michigan Stadium.
But an official provided a memory the DeGrazias will not forget.
Chris Curtis had begun his 16th season as an official earlier that day at U-M, and stuck around to watch the Lakes Valley Conference matchup. A month later, he was officiating the East/Warren Mott game, and made sure to check in with DeGrazia – a small gesture, but a meaningful one as well and another reminder of the interconnectedness of communities within educational athletics.
“When he heard my son wasn't able to play anymore, needed surgery and that he was a senior, he offered him kindness and a hug on the field,” Dante’s mother Dana DeGrazia wrote to East athletic director Greg Michaels. “As a parent whose son is going through a rough time dealing with losing his senior season, hearing this story from Dante means a lot to me and the support that was given to him and I wanted to reach out and tell him thank you.”
PHOTOS (Top) Kingsford football coach Mark Novara, far left, quarterback Nic Novara and Portland coach (and uncle) John Novara celebrate the Flivvers' District title. (Middle) South Lyon East's Dante DeGrazia (33) and official Chris Curtis meet for a quick hug during East's Week 5 game. (Photos courtesy of the Portland football program and DeGrazia family, respectively.)