North Central's Jets Take Off in 8-player

October 1, 2015

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

POWERS – Fielding Yost and his "Point-A-Minute" University of Michigan football powerhouse of more than a century ago had nothing on the supersonic Jets of Powers North Central.

In their first season of 8-player football, the Menominee County team is averaging a meteoric 73.6 points a game during a 5-0 start. The Jets, who play Eben Junction Superior Central on Saturday, have outscored their opponents 368-70.

This team is playing at a level not seen in Powers since, well, last March when the boys basketball team won the Class D championship with a 27-0 record. Six members of that team, led by all-state basketball guard and quarterback Jason Whitens, play football. 

"When you are winning and you are playing good, it is always fun," said Whitens, a junior who was a wide receiver/defensive back on last season's 3-5 team. "When you come to practice, it is nice to know what it feels like (to win)."

In both sports, Whitens has the ability to adjust and adapt as the game situation dictates. "It is nice to know you can change what you want and get the best possible result," he said. 

Coach Kevin Bellefeuil, in his 11th season during a tenure that includes four winning seasons and one postseason victory, said the transition from 11-player to 8 has been seamless and timely.

The Jets have been battling small football turnouts for years, with as few as 13 players available a few seasons ago. This year there are 18 players, which enables full-scale scrimmages under the 8-player version. 

"In reality, we're just this little school of 120 kids," Bellefeuil said, noting more students came out for football this season with the change to the 8-player game. The shift also allowed the Jets to retain a junior varsity program, which is playing seven games under the 11-player format and the final two in the 8-player version.

Football began in 1972 at North Central, and the program has just 23 winning seasons. Of those, only nine ended with two or fewer losses, including a 9-0 run in 1980. 

Athletic director Joe Pontbriand said, "there were two keys" to installing the 8-player game: number of participants and maintaining a jayvee program. "I think the process is working," he said.

"It becomes unhealthy," Pontbriand said of the injury factor caused in part by fatigue that occurs with small numbers of athletes trying to play 11-player football. "It is not all about winning. Eleven-man with no numbers means a long season." 

Bellefeuil said the jayvees haven't played more than three games in any of the past five years, noting several players have been elevated to varsity to replace injured players.

The Jets use basically the same offense this season. Rob Granquist, now the starting quarterback for Concordia University in Chicago, earned all-Upper Peninsula Class D honors last season. Whitens this season has completed 42 of 53 passes for 939 yards and 17 touchdowns while directing a ground attack that has gained 1,297 yards in 129 attempts for a whopping 9.88 average. 

The Jets have scored on every offensive possession in the first half this season, a staggering statistic. "The first half of a game we're pretty much 50-50 (run-pass)," said Bellefeuil, noting it is run-oriented in the running clock second half.

Bellefeuil, who calls the plays, indicated the Jets likely would be using more no-huddle offense this season to take advantage of their speed and overall athleticism. He said only five players would be considered linemen. 

"We run the same things we have done before," said Bellefeuil. "We play the pistol, shotgun offense. It is a lot of fun calling plays. Having the kind of athletes we have, we can move in-and-out and out-and-in, whatever we want.

"We just dropped the tackles and the slot receiver for eight-man. It has not been different from what we did already. It has not been much of a transition." 

Whitens said "we're having a lot of fun. We are all enjoying it."

Senior captain and tight end Brett Baird, who only plays football, said he enjoys the 8-player game more. "Once you get through the first two weeks and know the plays and how everything works, it is just football." 

He said the 11-player game is harder because "there are a lot more linemen and there are bigger guys. The eight-man game has more (playing) room. There are strengths and weaknesses both ways. Football is football; it doesn't matter."

The 8-player game is a better fit for the Jets because now they are playing comparable-sized teams and schools. Under the 11-player version the Class D school had games against such Class C opponents as Norway, Manistique, Munising and Newberry. 

The change has also been beneficial for the students. Bellefeuil said Morgan Cox, a tight end-defensive end who also plays basketball, has embraced the new format and gained confidence and maturity this year after the MHSAA title run in basketball. "Now he is one of the guys out in front for the drills. He is definitely a leader," said Bellefeuil.

"We talked about going eight-man for a couple of years," he added, noting now the Jets do not have to elevate freshmen or sophomores to the varsity. "You are asking 14-15 year old kids to tackle 18-19 year old kids. They were not ready for that, and it is dangerous." 

He said practice does not "seem like drudgery to them" under 8-player football. "They like playing the football brand of basketball they play because it is familiar to them," noting the fast-break basketball style and up-tempo football approach.

Having more depth allows the Jets to have fresh players available for more plays, which also fits the up-tempo style. "Now we get to play all of our kids and we wear teams out, like teams used to wear us out," said Bellefeuil. "A lot of injuries happen when you are tired and fatigued." 

Although the Jets are having success in their first season of 8-player, Pontbriand admits the change has not been totally accepted in the school district.

"Not everyone is buying in, but we have to do what is best for the kids," he said. "The varsity team has really bought in." 

The carryover from the phenomenal basketball season has also been important. "Carrying that attitude and enthusiasm over to the grass sport can be a deadly combination," Pontbriand said. "Those six kids (from basketball) are born leaders, and the other kids who sit in the front row cheering section now get to be part of that on the front line.

"It definitely sets a tone" in the classroom and community, he said of that success to start the school year. "It builds confidence and gives the kids a sense of entitlement and a chance to succeed. If you're the best on the field, you want to be the best in the classroom."

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Members of the North Central football team go through blocking and tackling drills at practice Wednesday in Powers. (Middle) North Central football coach Kevin Bellefeuil indicates a pass route he wants his receivers to take. (Below) Like North Central's helmets indicate, the Jets are flying high in their first season of 8-player, off to a 5-0 start while averaging 73.6 points a game. (Photos by Denny Grall.)

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.)