By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
Every football team talks about being a family.
But at Muskegon Oakridge, it’s more than just a motto.
Three of the Oakridge varsity coaches have sons on the team, including head coach Cary Harger with two-way starting senior lineman Cole Harger.
“It does make it extra special, being a senior and playing for my dad,” said Cole Harger of the Eagles’ high-flying start, which has them 6-0 and ranked No. 3 in Division 5 in the latest Associated Press poll.
“The family thing is real out here. This is such a tight-knit community, and we’re just together all the time. We know each other so well and know how to push each other.”
Oakridge faces its toughest test of the season Friday when it hosts conference rival Montague (5-1), which comes in riding a five-game winning streak and ranked No. 10 in Division 5.
Oakridge has been the dominant team for almost 40 years in the West Michigan Conference, a league which has put 14 teams in MHSAA state championship games and celebrated nine Finals winners. Oakridge has made it five times, winning titles in 1997, 2005 and 2008.
Early on in that stretch, the Eagles’ main league rival was North Muskegon, and later Ravenna. In the 2000s, the most competitive rivalries shifted north to the White Lake area in Whitehall and Montague, particularly Montague.
Oakridge is 7-4 against Montague over the past 11 years, with many of those games classic back-and-forth battles that came down to the final minutes (and sometimes, seconds). But the only game that anyone at Oakridge seems to remember is from a year ago, when host Montague pounded Oakridge 40-0 – the most lopsided conference loss in school history.
“We have waited 51 weeks for the opportunity to erase that memory,” said senior linebacker Jaden Parker, whose father, Tim, is the Oakridge defensive coordinator. “We got shell-shocked last year and didn’t fight back. This year we have more seniors, and we won’t let that happen again.”
This year’s matchup features two of Michigan’s top running backs. Montague senior Bryce Stark, a returning Associated Press all-stater, has gained 542 yards on 74 carries (7.3 per carry), despite being slowed early in the year with a knee injury. Oakridge counters with battering ram junior fullback Leroy Quinn (6-1, 216), the leading rusher in the Greater Muskegon area with 111 carries for 1,119 yards (10.1 average) and 19 touchdowns.
Coach Harger is quick to point out that Stark is just one of many weapons on this Montague team who worries his team.
“The first thing that strikes you about Montague is their athleticism and the number of quality athletes we have to focus on,” said Harger, a 1990 Oakridge graduate. “But they are also big up front, so you have to be concerned with that, as well. We need to play our best game.”
The final father-son connection on the Oakridge varsity staff is offensive coordinator Nate Danicek and his son, Jacob, a sophomore who starts at safety and plays slot receiver on offense when the Eagles break out of their full-house backfield and go with a spread look.
But the Oakridge football family goes far beyond just the coaching staff – it’s a way of life.
After a long practice Tuesday evening, Coach Harger and Coach Parker (whose fathers coached them on an Oakridge youth football team almost 40 years ago) went down the varsity roster and quickly pointed out all of the players whose fathers also played varsity football at Oakridge.
On that list is senior starting quarterback Koleman Wall (6-3, 197), whose father, Scott Wall, was the starting fullback on the 1990 team, the first Oakridge team to reach the MHSAA title game. Other father-son duos are starting running back and linebacker Blake Masterman (father Dan Masterman), starting center Mavrick McLouth (Dude McLouth), Jacob Barber (Nate Barber) and Sander Brott (David Brott).
Sander Brott is also a third-generation Eagle, as his grandfather, Mark Fazakerley, played on the first Oakridge varsity team in 1966.
“We are doing our best to carry on the tradition that Jack Schugars started out here,” said Coach Parker, referencing Schugars, who had a 262-78 record in 31 seasons at Oakridge from 1979 to 2010. “It’s a point of pride that these are all Oakridge kids. We don’t have schools of choice, so almost every one of these kids has been playing together since the youth leagues.”
The Oakridge youth league still boasts more than 150 players and is the starting point for one of the state’s most consistent programs.
With its six consecutive wins to open the season, Oakridge has qualified for the playoffs for the 15th straight year and 23rd of the past 24. Many believe this team could be good enough to get all the way to Ford Field for the first time since 2008.
The Eagles have an experienced backfield led by Quinn, but also featuring speedy senior Masterman (359 yards) and multi-talented senior Jalen Hughes (315 yards). Wall provides a fourth running threat and has been efficient through the air, completing 28-of-43 passes for 516 yards and 10 touchdowns, with just one interception.
The defense is led by senior tackle Brandon Wilde (5-9, 212), who has 38 tackles on the season with half of those tackles in the backfield for negative yardage, including six sacks. Masterman leads the team with 40 tackles, and senior cornerback Jaxon Fri has three interceptions.
Oakridge could possibly play Montague a second time in the playoffs. Montague has traditionally been a Division 6 playoff team, but with its enrollment up 36 students from last year to 445, it could end up with Oakridge in Division 5.
Another possible Eagles rematch down the road is with top-ranked Saginaw Swan Valley, which beat Oakridge in last year’s MHSAA Regional Final, 48-14.
The “Oakridge family” isn’t looking near that far ahead, but is focused on proving itself after last year’s lopsided loss at Montague.
“The way we played in that game last year was our biggest motivation all offseason,” said Cole Harger. “That wasn’t Oakridge football. I think one of our biggest strengths this year is our togetherness as a team, and we have the opportunity to prove that on Friday night.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Senior Cole Harger and Oakridge coach Cary Harger are one of three sets of fathers and sons on the varsity this season. (Middle) Harger (66), a two-way starting lineman, lines up his block during a Week 2 win over North Muskegon. (Below) Harger, with Jacob Danicek (middle) and Jaden Parker, whose fathers also are on the coaching staff. (Photos by Sherry Wahr.)
Caryn Jackson said it “started to hit her” at about noon, some seven hours before kickoff.
An official for football games at both the high school level in Michigan and the college level for the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Jackson started to fully realize what a special event she was about to participate in.
Jackson was assigned to be the head line judge for the Waterford Kettering at Detroit Lincoln-King varsity game last Thursday at Detroit Mercy, but this was a different assignment than any other.
In addition to Jackson, there were four more women to form what’s believed to be the first all-female officiating crew for a varsity football game in state history.
With that in mind, Jackson posted what was about to happen on her X (Twitter) feed hours before the game.
“It had 23,000 engagements in an hour,” Jackson said.
And all this happened without any retweets from her daughter Rikea Jackson, the 2019 Miss Basketball Award winner at Detroit Edison who plays for Tennessee and has over 10,000 followers.
The football game arrived, and right away spectators sensed they were watching history unfold.
The crew of Jackson, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little, umpire RanDee Henry and back judge Kamaria Douglas made history and inspired others during a night that should be impactful for a long time.
And this also wasn’t the first time they’ve led in the officiating world.
Randolph is a Big Ten football official. As noted above, Jackson officiates Division II college football. Douglass, Little and Henry all are college basketball officials as well, and Little in March became the first woman to officiate an MHSAA Boys Basketball Final since 1995 when she refereed the Division 3 championship game at Breslin Center.
Here are thoughts from all five about their unforgettable evening on the football field:
Kamaria Douglas: “It was very well-received, which was an even better feeling,” she said. “There were a lot of people, whether we were in the parking lot afterward or just chit-chatting, who wanted to take pictures. People gave us kudos and flowers and said we did a nice job. It’s one thing to get an opportunity, but also to go out there and do a good job. They want to see more of it. Waterford Kettering’s coach said he was the father of three girls, so it just warmed his heart. He came over and got a picture with us, which was really cool.”
RanDee Henry: “This game, although historic, was even more amazing because I got to do it with friends,” she said. “All of these women have strong friendships on and off the field, making this moment even more amazing and monumental.”
Very honored and proud for the Waterford Kettering Football program for being part of MHSAA history with the first ever all female group of officials for our game. Congrats to all five of them. @WKFootball1 @WKHSCaptains @WSDATHLETICS @MHSAA @michiganhsfca pic.twitter.com/HJvtEMSnXA
— Coach Bob Chiesa (@ChiesaBob) September 22, 2023
Caryn Jackson: “For my children, I always tell them to leave your mark wherever you go and whatever you do,” she said. “Be a part of history. Who knew I would be refereeing high school, let alone doing it with all women? It feels good when I walk the football field and people are cheering just because they see a woman. People say ‘I’m glad you’re here, ref.’ I’ve had young boys walk up to me and shake my hand and say thank you for making history, and that you’re the first female official I have had. That stuff makes me feel good. To do it alongside four other women, that was amazing.”
Delonda Little: “Women are breaking barriers, and it’s nice to be acknowledged and to have some gender equality out there,” she said. “We all felt good to get the support during the game from the coaches and the fans. Both coaches told us we did a great job. Coaches wanted to take pictures with us to be a part of the historical moment. Fans as we were leaving told us we did a good job.”
Little continued: “Women, we still have a long way to go. But it’s good we are getting the acknowledgment we deserve. There should be gender equality.”
Nicole Randolph: “The players kind of got the adrenaline going,” she said. “I was already a little nervous going into the day because it was really happening. When I got to the field, I was calm, cool and collected. When we all walked onto the field, the players were excited, and the coaches were excited. They asked for pictures and said they wanted to take pictures at the end of the game because they had never seen this many female officials at a game.”
Randolph continued: “We went in and said ‘Hey girls, this a great opportunity. Let’s make the best of it so we can continue to open the doors for other young ladies to continue to aspire (in) our footsteps.’”
PHOTO Thursday's crew at Detroit Mercy, from left: head line judge Caryn Jackson, umpire RanDee Henry, referee Nicole Randolph, line judge Delonda Little and back judge Kamaria Douglas. (Courtesy photo.)