Perry Eager to Begin Playoff Chase Again

August 7, 2017

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

PERRY – Swirling around in the back of his mind, Tanner Orweller sees what the most historic moment in Perry football history will look like.

The Ramblers, after coming so close so many seasons before, will make the playoffs for the first time. The entire town will turn out for the game – so many fans the bleachers won’t hold them all.

A motivating memory also replays frequently: Orweller, playing safety last fall as a sophomore on the varsity, biting on a pitch to the halfback against Maple Valley although his responsibility was to cover a receiver heading downfield.

That halfback threw a pass to the uncovered receiver, who ended up on the ground just short of the goalline. The Lions went on to defeat Perry by a point – 28-27 – and two weeks later the Rambers ended the season 5-4 and just short again of that elusive postseason berth.

“I know championships are not made in a matter of a year, or two years even,” said Orweller, also a Regional-qualifying wrestler during the winter. “You’ve got to train your whole life in order to be the best at what you do.

“There’s going to be failure in what you do, and you’ve got to know it’s not, ‘Oh no, I’m done.’ It’s, ‘Look, I’ve learned something from this. I know what I can do better. I’m going to practice those things I did wrong and make those mistakes go away so I can succeed next year.’”

Orweller and 19 teammates have been training most of their lives for the opportunity that began again Monday all over the state with the first practices of the 2017 football season.

Not counting schools playing varsity football for the first time this fall, there are 17 programs statewide that have never made the MHSAA Playoffs.

Of those 17, nine schools have existed since at least 1975, the first year football playoffs were conducted by the MHSAA.

And of those nine, Perry is one – and can make a great argument that none of the other 16 has come closer to earning another game more often.

From 1975-98, when playoff qualifiers were determined regionally by playoff-point average (based on success and strength of schedule), Perry enjoyed eight seasons of at least six wins – which would have been plenty under the current playoff format, which set an automatic qualifier at six victories when the 11-player field was expanded to 256 teams in 1999.  The Ramblers had at least six wins four straight seasons from 1983-86, finishing the regular season 9-0 in 1984 but getting left out of the postseason. They then went 7-2 three times over four seasons from 1990-93, but couldn’t break through.

Perry entered the 2006 regular-season finale 5-3 and needing a win over Williamston to qualify for the first time – but lost 14-0.  And then came last season and another 5-4 finish, the Ramblers’ best since that just-miss season a decade before but with a five-point loss to eventual Greater Lansing Activities Conference champion Lake Odessa Lakewood in Week 3 and then the one-point heartbreaker against the Lions a month later.

Telling that senior class that it wouldn’t have enough playoff points to make history was painful for then second-year coach Jeff Bott. And it was followed by a long offseason.

But Bott also saw the roots of a winner sinking in. An assistant at Perry for two years before taking over the program in 2015, Bott grew up in Haslett and never made the playoffs as a player – but was on the coaching staff as the program made the playoffs 12 times over 17 years with two trips to the MHSAA Finals.

He’s seen what it takes to become an annual playoff team. And he’s seen those steps taken, especially from an offseason training point of view, as the Ramblers have climbed back into the conversation.

“They playoffs weren’t something we talked about until we earned (it). I feel last year we earned the right to talk about it,” Bott said. “We aren’t there yet. But now, it’s time to finish. We just have to finish this year.”

Those finishing will mostly be new players. The roster has three seniors plus Orweller and two more juniors who were sophomores on varsity last season. The rest of their teammates are new to the top level.

But the other 13 juniors played together on junior varsity and led a team that finished 7-2, the latest strong run for a class that Orweller recalled finishing 6-1 in fourth grade – when he started having those playoff dreams for the first time.

If the Ramblers succeed in making the playoffs this season or next (or both), junior Drew Crim would be the first of his family including his dad Todd (a 1990 grad) and two uncles who preceded him to play in the postseason in a Perry uniform.

He’s seen success from a distance, cheering on cousin D.J. Zezula, who quarterbacked Clarkston to Division 1 titles in 2013 and 2014 before moving on to Wayne State University. Zezula has imparted on his cousin the importance of keeping his teammates working together and making sure they are accountable to each other on the field and off. Drew was another of the then-sophomores who came up to varsity in 2016. And Todd has pumped up his son’s confidence after watching he and his classmates grow up together. 

“He says this year will be the greatest of probably all. We have a very athletic group of kids, and he thinks we will do great things – Yes, I agree,” Drew Crim said.

“I work with these guys, and I know their tenacity and drive to do better things.”

Bott, who teaches in Haslett and also coaches basketball at Perry, recalled how the Ramblers used to be known for having some sizable guys, but this year’s team has more athletes. He made a point when taking over the program to push for the addition of local Spartan Performance, which trains the team year-round with a focus on improving as a complete athlete instead of just hitting the weights.

That offseason dedication and continued improvement in a wide-open spread attack all contribute to Perry looking the part of a program on the rise. 

Now the Ramblers hope to look the part of playoff team.

“This town loves football. Every Friday night there are 2,000 people here, three deep on the fence,” he said. “(Our players) are focused on giving something back here – for us, for them, but for this town. This program has been looked down on at times, and it hasn’t always been successful, but there have been great athletes and teams that came through in the 90s and we’re trying to get back to where it was.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me in town that this is the way it used to look.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Perry linemen work through a defensive drill during Monday's opening practice. (Middle) Ramblers coach Jeff Bott addresses his varsity and junior varsity players before those first drills of the 2017 season. 

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.)