Kalkaska Climbs Under 'Famed' Alum

September 28, 2016

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.)

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:

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.)