By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GREENVILLE – The photos Powers North Central football players took Friday night after winning the first MHSAA championship trophy in program history were finishing touches on arguably the most impressive run yet during the short history of 8-player football in this state.
Although the 8-player format is only half a decade old, it’s fair to surmise Michigan may not see an offense as potent as North Central’s for years to come – at least until the Jets take the floor this basketball season.
Sure, North Central was held to its season low in points Friday. But given the opponent and the stage, the Jets did more than enough to impress in defeating previously-undefeated Battle Creek St. Philip only 58-33 after scoring at least 64 points in every other game this fall.
North Central (13-0) ended this season, it’s first as an 8-player program, averaging 70.4 points per game. That was only half a point less than the basketball team, featuring many of these same players, averaged in winning the Class D title in March.
“When you go into a season, you know what you have and you know what you need to work on,” said junior quarterback Jason Whitens, who also was the basketball team’s leading scorer last winter. “With the group of guys we’ve got, we all love each other, we’re close-knit just like basketball, and we love to work hard. We come out here and perform and just work hard.”
North Central finished 13-0. Before St. Philip came within 25 points, no opponent had come closer to the Jets than 48.
A few key decisions gave them the momentum for such a dominating run.
First came the decision to move to 8-player. North Central had had recent success in 11-player, making the playoffs three of the last five seasons and finishing 8-3 in 2013. But enrollment dropping to 119 students this fall justified the move.
Then came another switch. Whitens, a receiver last season, moved to quarterback to take over for his graduated cousin Rob Granquist after formerly serving as one of Granquist’s top targets.
Whitens threw for 217 yards and two touchdowns Friday, giving him 2,532 yards and 45 touchdown passes without an interception this fall. It’s a good argument, which was more incredible – the zero interceptions or that 25 percent of his 179 passes went for scores.
His development was quickened by work with cousin Granquist, but also by another sharp decision by coach Kevin Bellefeuil, who decided to keep the same offense as when the team was 11-player but drop the tackles and a slot receiver.
Still, St. Philip nearly wrote its own storybook ending as it sought its first football title since 1985.
The Tigers scored first – the first time North Central had trailed this season – and led by as many as nine points before a pair of plays changed the game’s course.
Holding a 21-20 lead with 2:15 left in the first half, St. Philip chose to go for a first down on 4th-and-1 from North Central’s 34 yard line – and was stuffed for a 3-yard loss by junior Tanner Poupore with help from a few teammates.
On the next play, Whitens dropped a 63-yard touchdown pass just over the shoulder of junior running back Bobby Kleiman, who outran a defender for the go-ahead score.
“We’ve got a couple of guys, and we can just call their number and it seems to go for us every time,” Bellefeuil said. “We set up a couple of plays, and then we waited and waited and waited. And then we hit with that big pass to Bobby down the middle and it was just what we hoped would happen.”
Less than two minutes later, junior Dawson Bilski intercepted a fourth-down St. Philip pass again in North Central territory. With 30 seconds left in the first half, Whitens led a 56-yard drive that included 28 and 34-yard passes to Kleiman and ended with Whitens scoring on a 1-yard run with a second left in the half.
“They just had a ton of weapons and speed that we couldn’t contain, and that was the ballgame,” Tigers coach Dave Downey said. “Once we get down, we’re pressing. We’re throwing the ball a lot more than what we probably should have. We like to run the ball a little bit more. When we went to the air, they defended the pass pretty well and they got to our quarterback quite a few times, and that was the difference too.”
The North Central defense did give up a season high in points, but those 33 were also a season low for the Tigers. St. Phil did end up with 380 total yards – senior running back Brayden Darr ran for 104 and two touchdowns despite plenty of North Central attention, and senior quarterback Brendan Gausselin threw for 172 and two scores – but St. Philip couldn’t make up for a pair of interceptions and the Jets’ 572 yards of offense.
Darr also had 13 tackles to lead the Tigers, and Bilski had a team-high 12 for North Central.
Kleiman rushed for 205 yards on only 21 carries, good for an average of nearly 10 yards per attempt. He ran for five touchdowns to go with the sixth through the air.
Bilski and Kleiman are two more of six starters on the Jets’ offense who have another season to play. After averaging 70 points a game and dominating most of all 13 wins, what could be next?
“Keep working hard and just have fun,” Whitens said. “We’re in high school, having the time of our lives right now and doing things we love. We’re ready for next year, and I’m very excited.”
PHOTOS: (Top) North Central quarterback Jason Whitens runs toward the end zone while St. Philip’s Trevor Searls (70) and Grayson Obey (16) give chase. (Middle) St. Philip quarterback Brendan Gausselin moves upfield while the Jets’ Taylor Belongia (79) and Zach Estrada (68) close in. (Below) North Central’s Bobby Kleiman hauls in a 63-yard scoring pass during the second quarter. (Photos by John Johnson.)
SCHOOLCRAFT — If it is a home game for the Schoolcraft football team, head over to Vicksburg.
If it is soccer, go to Schoolcraft’s baseball field.
Things are a bit jumbled in the sports world for the Eagles this season.
With a new football field under construction and a new elementary school built on the site of the former practice fields, the two teams have been a bit displaced.
“Along with our football field, we had three practice fields that were utilized by a lot of our youth programs, Rocket football, youth soccer and our soccer and football programs,” Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin said. “It’s taken a lot of understanding and flexibility from our coaches, players and our community to make it work out, and it has.”
Meanwhile, all four Eagles home football games will be played at Vicksburg High School.
If Vicksburg is home on a Friday, then the Eagles will play Saturday, including their Homecoming game this Saturday against Galesburg-Augusta.
The Eagles won their only “home” game so far, 33-14 against Kalamazoo United, and take a 3-1 record into Saturday’s contest.
The soccer team gave up its field to the football team for practices and has been practicing and playing their matches in the outfield of the baseball stadium.
For the soccer team, “It’s kind of an upgrade,” Applin said. “The soccer field they traditionally play on, they don’t have a scoreboard, they don’t have a bathroom facility, so we’ve been able to use the (baseball) scoreboard, the PA system, open up the bathroom building.
“The goal at some point is to give soccer a home, and we’re very, very excited about that.”
This year definitely has been challenging for the first-year AD, who credits Vicksburg athletic director Mike Roy with being a tremendous help.
“Mike Roy has been nothing but accommodating to us,” Applin said. “He’s been super helpful to me stepping in and assuming this scenario.
“The communities are so close, it almost feels like home for us.”
Roy said Jeff Clark, former Schoolcraft AD, reached out once the bond was passed for the new stadium last year.
“We had to make small accommodations as did Schoolcraft to make the schedules work,” Roy said. “By moving (Schoolcraft’s) games to Saturday, Vicksburg had to work with our Rocket football organization to make sure games were completed” before the Eagles varsity games.
Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency said his team has been “rolling with the punches.
“These guys don’t care where it’s at; they just want to play football. We’re all taking care of each other. What a great place to be when everybody works together.”
When Jake Bailey heard the team would be playing at Vicksburg, “That got me excited,” the junior offensive tackle said. “They’ve got a really nice facility. I know the school will come out to support us no matter where we are, but it’s definitely different.
“Good thing we don’t play Vicksburg, although it would be fun because it would be both our home fields. The new facilities and being back at our home field at Roy Davis (Field next year) will be really fun.”
Vicksburg is Division 4, while Schoolcraft is Division 7.
The soccer team was “just being a team player” in giving up its own field for football practice, second-year head coach Jeremy Mutchler said.
“For the soccer team to be a team player and get behind the football team will help the community get behind the soccer team as well,” he added.
The biggest drawback is that part of the current field includes a piece of the baseball infield.
“The only odd thing is it is a smaller field, still regulation size, but smaller,” Mutchler said. “Part of the field is in the diamond, so we have to play in the dirt and it gets tricky, especially when you’re trying to throw it in or just play down the line.”
The move has cost the team a few home games.
“At the beginning of the year, we allowed schools, if they didn’t want to play here, we would go to their house,” Mutchler said. “We had to go to a few schools we would have played at home.”
Maintenance supervisor Eric McGehee was instrumental in preparing the field.
“He laid out exactly the parameters, so I was able to send that to all the ADs that were going to visit to give them an opportunity to decide whether that’s something they wanted to help us out for our home games,” Applin said. “A lot of schools were more than willing to come and play us to give our boys some home games. A couple wanted to be cautious and play on a more traditional surface, and we were able to make those arrangements as well.”
In only its second year as a varsity sport, the boys soccer team is still finding its identity, posting a 2-5 record so far.
“We’re a very young team,” Mutchler said. “All juniors and freshmen. This is the juniors' second regular season. It’s all been a learning phase with maturity and sportsmanship.”
Junior captain Jack Curtis said he was a bit “bummed out” when he heard the team would move to the baseball field.
“The first practice, I drove over to our practice field,” he said. “No one was there.
“I drove over to the high school and saw everyone practicing (at the baseball field). I didn’t think a soccer field could fit on a baseball field.”
Curtis said in spite of the temporary move, “I’m just glad we can have some home games this year on Schoolcraft soil.”
As for Applin, he spent much of his career coaching basketball at both the high school and college levels and most recently worked as a salesman for Zeigler. His wife, Meredith, is an assistant coach for Western Michigan University’s women’s basketball team.
Ferency is appreciative of the work Clark and Applin have done to make this season’s changes relatively seamless.
“I’d like to highlight how great our athletic department is,” he said. “It takes a lot of moving pieces and parts to move people around and have a space for everybody.
“I’m really proud of our athletic department and all our coaches and kids for just rolling with the punches.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Schoolcraft’s varsity boys soccer team, including Nyan Wonders (15), faces Comstock this season on its field in the outfield of the baseball stadium. (2) Schoolcraft’s Kolby Lloyd (10) works to break away from a tackler during a “home” game played at Vicksburg this fall. (3) Clockwise, from top left: Schoolcraft football coach Nathan Ferency, Schoolcraft boys soccer coach Jeremy Mutchler, soccer player Jack Curtis and football player Jake Bailey. (4) Schoolcraft athletic director Bryan Applin has taken over the maneuvering of the teams’ home sites during his first year on the job. (Action photos by Stephanie Blentlinger/Lingering Memories Photography. Headshots and Applin photo by Pam Shebest.)