Winning was such an unfamiliar feeling for the Memphis varsity football team that when the Yellowjackets picked up a victory in Week 1, coach Pat Connell had to give some of his players a push when it came to enjoying it.
“We call (the victory formation), they take a knee and nobody knows what to do,” Connell said. “The kids on the field are starting to celebrate, and I looked at the kids behind me and said, ‘Hey, this is when you celebrate.’”
Memphis’ 14-12 win against Burton Bentley on Aug. 23 snapped a 26-game losing streak for the Yellowjackets, who hadn’t been victorious since Week 1 of the 2015 season. It was a cathartic moment for the players, coaching staff, school and community – one that won’t soon be forgotten.
“Honestly, I’d say it was the best feeling I’ve ever felt on that field,” senior wingback and defensive tackle Cole Myers said. “My entire time playing football at my school, we hadn’t gotten a win in the last two to three years. It felt like the turning point of our program.”
One win was great, and something Memphis desperately needed. But while everyone involved in the Memphis program knows things are looking up, they also know there is plenty of work still to be done to turn things completely around. That was evident in 44-0 and 42-0 losses to Ubly and Brown City, respectively, in the following weeks.
But it’s work the coaches and players are now willing to put in.
“I enjoyed it; it was nice to have my first Memphis football win,” senior quarterback and safety Cale Shivers said. “I’ve played football my whole life and been on winning teams my whole life, so I know that if we want to win more games, we have to keep working.”
When Connell and his staff took over, Memphis had just finished its first 0-9 season in 2016, which came on the heels of back-to-back 1-8 seasons.
During those struggles, numbers had gotten so low for the Yellowjackets that there were talks of prematurely ending a season -- not to end the losing, but to keep kids safe.
To build the program, Connell first needed players, and to get players, he needed to be recruiting in the hallways. Unfortunately for him, he teaches at Port Huron Northern, a good 30-minute drive from Memphis, as does his assistant Casey Kucsera. Assistant coach Pete Fox teaches at St. Clair, which is closer, but clearly not in the building.
“That first year when we took over in April or May, we were trying to get any kids, but it was a slow process,” Connell said. “We were taking personal days to set up in the school to go meet kids.”
The idea of simply playing a junior varsity schedule was brought up, but Connell said that if there was just one senior who wanted to play, the Yellowjackets would play as a varsity team so that player could have that experience. They wound up with 10, and while it was another 0-9 season, that fall was a building block.
“That first year was just about making it fun,” Connell said. “It isn’t us coming in to yell and scream at you; we want you to come out and enjoy football. It was opening the weight room, and sometimes kids would stumble in, and we were developing that trust. Then the word started getting out.”
When comparing 0-9 seasons, it can be hard to find tangible improvement. But Memphis scored more points (60-39) and allowed fewer (427-538) while playing a similar schedule in 2017.
Most importantly, though, the players were noticing that things were different.
“Kids didn’t really see the progression until other coaches and players from teams were saying, ‘Even though you guys lost, we can tell you really look like a football team now,’’ Shivers said. “And we were hearing from the public that we actually looked good out there.”
Despite not winning a game, Memphis did pick up some momentum.
“When I first got out to Memphis, I would ask kids, ‘Are you interested in playing football?’ and it was, ‘I don’t know, maybe,’” said Connell, who is up to 28 players on his roster. “This offseason, it was, ‘Are you playing,’ and they were like, ‘Yes sir, I’m playing.’ We had like 20 kids who were all in on football. Now, that didn’t mean that they realized they had to be there three days a week in the winter lifting, but they were excited.”
The excitement grew after the opening win against Burton Bentley, a game that was filled with drama. After Memphis took a 14-12 lead on Shivers’ second touchdown pass of the evening and his ensuing 2-point conversion run, it had a chance to ice the game by running out the clock with a few first downs. Before that could happen, however, the lights -- which were set on a timer -- went out in the stadium.
When they came back on about 20 minutes later, Burton Bentley forced a Memphis punt to give itself one more chance.
Fortunately for the Yellowjackets, that drive ended with a turnover, and Memphis was able to run a play out of the victory formation for the first time in three years.
“I wouldn’t even call it remembering how to win,” Myers said. “Because I’ve never been on a winning team for football. It was something new.”
The feeling, Myers said, made him want to win more. And while Weeks 2 and 3 were a return to Earth for the Yellowjackets, those defeats haven’t dampened their spirits or their outlook. Connell knows there is still plenty of work to be done in the weight room and on the field to have his team competing with its Greater Thumb Conference East opponents.
But his players believe in what he and his staff are doing, and they are now starting to believe in themselves.
“It might take a couple more wins before people (in the school) start realizing this is a different program from past years,” Myers said. “(A successful season would be) to put in everything that we possibly can and have more wins than losses at this point. I would say five to six wins would be what I would hope out of this season.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Memphis players huddle up before a game this season. (Middle) The Yellowjackets defense held Burton Bentley to 12 points. (Photos courtesy of the Memphis football program.)
We have our first league champions of the 2023 football season, and setups for several deciding matchups to come over the next week or two.
Explanations of many of those make up most of our “Week 6 Review” – but with playoff selection now just three weeks away, you’ll notice our attention has become focused as well on those races for the 32 qualifying spots in our MHSAA 11-player divisions and top 16s that make the 8-player brackets.
The state rankings mentioned frequently below are Michigan High School Football Coaches Association polls. The playoff-point averages are tracked by the MHSAA and used to determine the postseason fields – and discussion of movement on those lists will be prevalent through the rest of the regular season.
Bay & Thumb
HEADLINER Almont 30, Croswell-Lexington 20 Almont set itself up to clinch a share of the Blue Water Area Conference title this week or next by moving into first place alone in this matchup of co-leaders heading into the weekend. The Division 6 No. 2 Raiders (6-0) also tied their win totals of both of the last two seasons as they made another move toward potentially their best finish since 2019. Croswell-Lexington (5-1), No. 8 in Division 4, will be rooting for Richmond this week and Yale next to deal Almont a loss that would set up a possible shared league title. Click for more from the Port Huron Times Herald.
— WXYZ Detroit (@wxyzdetroit) September 30, 2023
Watch list Fenton 40, Linden 32 After sharing the Flint Metro League Stripes title with Linden and Swartz Creek last season, Fenton (5-1) clinched a share of this season’s championship and left Linden (4-2) holding out hope for a share if Flushing can upset the Tigers this week.
On the move Chesaning 28, Ovid-Elsie 19 Chesaning (5-1) can clinch a share of the Mid-Michigan Activities Conference title this week or next after stopping Ovid-Elsie (3-3) in its attempt to reset the standings. Marine City 36, Madison Heights Lamphere 13 Marine City (5-1) clinched a share of the Macomb Area Conference Silver championship with one more league game to play, sending Lamphere to 4-2. Grand Blanc 44, Lapeer 26 The Saginaw Valley Red is a two-team race with Grand Blanc (4-2) and Davison the only teams left undefeated in league play, and Lapeer (4-2) joining Saginaw Heritage with a second league loss and tied for third.
HEADLINER Macomb Dakota 31, Romeo 19 The Macomb Area Conference Red is one of the most monitored leagues in the state every season because of the powerful Division 1 contenders that traditionally emerge – and four have a chance to emerge as league champion this month. Romeo entered the weekend alone in first, but now four teams are 3-1 in league play with one game to go and co-champions guaranteed with those four teams facing off across two matchups this week. Click for more from the Macomb Daily.
Watch list Gibraltar Carlson 28, Trenton 23 Carlson (5-1) lined itself up to face Allen Park in Week 8 for some piece of the Downriver League title, as those two teams are left as undefeated in league play – although Trenton (4-2) could break things up a bit as the Trojans face Allen Park this week.
On the move Belleville 35, Westland John Glenn 8 Belleville (6-0) and Week 8 opponent Dearborn Fordson remain alone atop the Kensington Lakes Activities Association East after the Tigers dealt John Glenn (5-1) this first loss. Clarkston 44, West Bloomfield 36 After an 0-2 start, Clarkston (4-2) has won four straight and set itself up to face Lake Orion this week for a winner-take-all matchup in the Oakland Activities Association Red. The win also pushed the Wolves from 10 spots behind West Bloomfield (4-2) to three ahead on the Division 1 playoff points list. Detroit Voyageur 34, Detroit Edison 32 The Cougars (4-2) bounced back from a Week 5 loss to deal a second straight to Edison (4-2), which entered the week ranked No. 9 in the Division 6 coaches poll. The win also brought Voyageur back into the Division 6 playoff picture at No. 25 on the playoff points list after it had fallen back to No. 34.
HEADLINER Corunna 35, Goodrich 7 This has to rank at or near the top of the wins Corunna (6-0) has piled up over its recent resurgence, as it not only guaranteed the Cavaliers a share of the Flint Metro League Stars title but also handed the first loss to the No. 2-ranked team in Division 4. Corunna, ranked No. 5 in Division 5, led 28-0 at halftime on the way to its first win over the Martians (5-1) since 2016. Click for more from the Flint Journal.
A Flint Metro League-Stars collision! Both teams came in undefeated on the season, but Goodrich had a number on the Cavs since 2016.
Corunna would dominate on home turf, and take first place in the league. Final score, 35-7. pic.twitter.com/SSLb3VkGZz
— Miriam Bingham (@MiriamBingham) September 30, 2023
Watch list Pewamo-Westphalia 27, Fowler 14 After losing its opener to still-undefeated North Muskegon, P-W has won its last five and sits atop the Central Michigan Athletic Conference standings with two league games to play. Fowler (5-1) had defeated the Pirates last season to create a three-way CMAC shared title between those two and Laingsburg.
On the move DeWitt 41, Grand Ledge 38 The last two meetings between these two have come down to seven points or fewer, with last year’s Grand Ledge win helping the Comets (5-1) share the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue title and this year’s DeWitt win knocking Grand Ledge out of first place while keeping the Panthers (3-2) in the mix. Beal City 30, Evart 16 The matchup for first place in the Highland Conference went to Beal City (6-0), which can clinch with another win over the next two weeks while second-place Evart (4-2) will need help to get a share. New Lothrop 34, Montrose 8 New Lothrop’s MMAC title hopes dimmed with a Week 2 loss to Chesaning, but the Hornets (5-1) are up to No. 9 in Division 8 playoff-points average with two wins over Division 6 schools and this one over the Division 7 Rams (4-2).
Northern Lower Peninsula
HEADLINER Charlevoix 30, Elk Rapids 7 The Division 7 No. 9 Rayders (5-1) continued to roll through Northern Michigan Football Conference Leaders play, clinching a share of the league title with their fifth-straight win overall this season. Charlevoix can finish the championship outright in Week 8 at Tawas, and its final three regular-season opponents are combined 3-15 – making a fourth-straight season reaching eight wins look like a growing possibility. Click for more from the Petoskey News-Review.
Watch list Petoskey 36, Cadillac 21 There’s definitely work to do over the next three weeks for Petoskey (4-2) to make the playoffs, but the Northmen have guaranteed their best finish since 2018 – the last time they’d defeated Cadillac (3-3). They sit No. 23 on the Division 3 playoff points list.
On the move Benzie Central 31, Boyne City 24 The Huskies (3-3) will need Tawas’ help to catch a share of that Leaders title, but in avenging last season’s 51-35 loss to Boyne City (2-4) they’ve moved closer to possibly earning their best finish since 2018. Lake City 28, McBain 22 (2OT) The Trojans (4-2) defeated McBain (4-2) by six points for the second-straight season, this time helping them hold steady at the No. 23 spot on the Division 6 playoff points list. Ogemaw Heights 47, Flint Powers Catholic 9 Ogemaw Heights (5-1) ran its winning streak to five as it heads into this week’s NMFC Legends decider against Kingsley.
Southeast & Border
HEADLINER Michigan Center 32, Grass Lake 27 Michigan Center’s next two weeks will be massive, but the Cardinals earned that billing. By avenging last season’s 36-29 loss to Grass Lake (4-2), Michigan Center (5-1) upped what’s at stake in this week’s matchup with Napoleon as those share the lead in the Cascades Conference East – and with third-place Manchester waiting in Week 3 with its only loss to Napoleon. Click for more from JTV.
Watch list Parma Western 21, Battle Creek Harper Creek 6 The Panthers (6-0) also have set up a matchup of league co-leaders, downing third-place Harper Creek (4-2) on the way to this week’s meeting with Hastings for first in the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference.
On the move Jackson Northwest 23, Ann Arbor Father Gabriel Richard 14 Northwest (3-3) has made massive strides the last two seasons, and this win has to rank up there as AAGR (5-1) had dominated its first five opponents. Adrian 22, Jackson 9 This Adrian win, along with Chelsea’s over Tecumseh, gave Chelsea a share of the Southeastern Conference White title – although if Jackson (4-2) defeats Chelsea this week, those two and possibly Adrian all could share the championship. Saline 43, Ann Arbor Huron 7 Saline (6-0) held onto its one-game lead in the SEC Red and sent Huron (3-3) into a third-place tie. The Hornets finish the league schedule with the seventh and eighth-place teams as they look to claim what would be a ninth Red title over the last decade but after finishing second a year ago.
HEADLINER Constantine 50, Allegan 14 Five of six teams in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore are .500 or better, and Constantine is leading the way at 5-1 and as one of three contenders that have started league play 2-0. The Division 6 No. 7 Falcons scored their season high in bringing some separation to the league standings by sending Allegan to 4-2. Click for more from the Kalamazoo Gazette.
— FOX 17 Blitz (@FOX17Blitz) September 30, 2023
Watch list Niles Brandywine 30, Dowagiac 7 Brandywine may be only 2-4, but the Bobcats moved up from No. 46 to 33 on the Division 7 playoff-points list by stunning Division 5 Dowagiac (4-2). Brandywine has another Division 5 opponent next in Benton Harbor.
On the move Berrien Springs 35, Buchanan 14 This win, combined with Brandywine’s over Dowagiac, put Berrien Springs (3-2) alone in first place in the Lakeland Conference – and after a 20-14 loss to Buchanan (3-3) last season cost the Shamrocks the league title. Richland Gull Lake 27, Benton Harbor 16 Gull Lake (4-2) already has bettered its record from a year ago, and with two wins over the next three weeks would post its best finish since 2009. Paw Paw 35, Edwardsburg 0 The Red Wolves (6-0) ended a 15-game losing streak against the rival Eddies (3-3) sending them out of first place in the Wolverine Conference while maintaining a tie for the top spot with Niles.
HEADLINER Menominee 44, Gladstone 26 One down, two to go as Western Peninsula Athletic Conference leader Menominee began a difficult three-game run against the three teams that entered the weekend tied for second in the league. Following Landan Bardowski among others, the Maroons (6-0) scored the most points Gladstone had given up in a game since 2017 – although Gladstone (4-2) also did some fine work offensively against a Menominee defense that had allowed just six points total over the first five weeks. Click for more from RRN Sports.
Trevor Theuerkauf passes to Aaron Brunelle for the Menominee touchdown tonight against Gladstone. pic.twitter.com/u1XZ8PGE4I
— Jack Hall (@JackHall600) September 30, 2023
Watch list Marquette 38, Escanaba 20 After playing an old rival as part of a new league, Marquette (3-2) is tied for second in the Big North Conference but more notably has equaled last season’s win total and sits among the top 32 on the Division 3 playoff-points list for the second-straight week.
On the move Calumet 17, Houghton 16 The Copper Kings (2-4) broke a three-game losing streak and now have 10 spots to climb to qualify for the Division 6 playoffs, but with some valuable opportunities to do so. Iron Mountain 55, Manistique 14 The Mountaineers (6-0) clinched a share of the West-PAC Iron championship with another big performance; they have won all of their games by at least 40 points. Sault Ste. Marie 50, Maple City Glen Lake 7 Sault Ste. Marie (4-2) bounced back from a Week 5 loss to Marquette to hold steady among the top 32 on the Division 4 playoff-points list, while Glen Lake (3-3) remains among the qualifying group in Division 8.
HEADLINER Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 20, East Grand Rapids 0 There was notable reshuffling in the Ottawa-Kent Conference White over the weekend, as the league has six teams 4-2 or better and four tied for first thanks in part to FHC’s shutout of the Pioneers. The Rangers (5-1), No. 2 in Division 3, now share the top spot with EGR (5-1), Lowell and Byron Center. Click for more from the Grand Rapids Press.
Check out the moments from Forest Hills Central's win over East Grand Rapids on September 29th, 2023! JT Hartman's performance led to a rushing touchdown and an fumble return for a touchdown in the 20-0 victory. Powered by @lawrencetechu. Visit https://t.co/Uq6Fmk66eG pic.twitter.com/1Yp6eDpknW
— STATE CHAMPS! Michigan (@statechampsmich) October 1, 2023
Watch list Spring Lake 35, Allendale 28 The O-K Blue has five teams at 4-2 or better, with Grand Rapids West Catholic alone at the top after Spring Lake (5-1) rebounded from a Week 5 loss to GRWC to hand Allendale (5-1) this defeat. But Spring Lake also just became Allendale’s biggest fan – Allendale gets West Catholic this week.
On the move Lowell 38, Byron Center 28 Matching Forest Hills Central, Lowell also fought back into the O-K Blue race as these two join FHC and EGR as 3-1 in the league and 5-1 overall. Muskegon 49, Zeeland East 14 The Big Reds (4-2) have won four straight to start the O-K Green schedule and set up this week’s meeting with co-leader Zeeland West. Impressive as well, Muskegon’s last three opponents, including East, are 4-2. Caledonia 30, Hudsonville 0 Division 2 top-ranked Caledonia (5-1) has followed up its loss to Rockford two weeks ago with two power-packed wins, in this one handing Hudsonville (4-2) its first shutout since 2012.
HEADLINER Adrian Lenawee Christian 73, Mendon 20 Lenawee Christian (6-0) put up 63 of those points in the first half, fully justifying its top ranking in Division 2 – and the Cougars could be considered the top team in all of 8-player as Division 1 top-ranked St. Ignace joined No. 2 Mendon (5-1) in losing for the first time over the weekend. Sam Lutz ran for four touchdowns and threw for four more for the Cougars, while Jack McCaw ran for 210 yards and three scores for Mendon. Click for more from the Adrian Daily Telegram.
Watch list Newberry 46, St. Ignace 40 Newberry (5-1) has won a playoff game each of the last three seasons and is hardly an unknown – but St. Ignace (5-1) had won all but one of its games this fall by double digits, making this an even more impressive result.
On the move Brown City 60, Mayville 0 This was another matchup of undefeated teams, and Brown City now sits alone atop the North Central Thumb League Stars with Mayville (5-1) and Kingston a game back. Crystal Falls Forest Park 36, Lake Linden-Hubbell 28 With Lake Linden-Hubbell (3-3) dealing Powers North Central a loss two weeks ago, the Great Lakes Eight Conference West has a different look at the top for the first time in a while with Norway leading the way but Forest Park (5-1) also in the mix if the Knights trip up. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart 25, Fulton 18 The Irish (6-0) have a one-game lead on Portland St. Patrick in the Mid-State Activities Conference with this win over Fulton (4-2) joining a Week 3 one-pointer over the Shamrocks as key reasons why.
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PHOTOS (Top) Grand Blanc's Jimmy Lacy (13) applies pressure as Lapeer takes to the air Friday. (Middle) Negaunee's Ian Engstrom (5) tries to catch a pass just a little bit out of his reach. (Top photo by Terry Lyons, middle photo by Cara Kamps.)