By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
CUTLERVILLE – With the 2015 season opener against Grand Rapids Christian a few days away, South Christian football coach Mark Tamminga said quarterback isn’t a position that's stressing him out.
That statement might be a bit surprising considering Tamminga graduated this spring one of the most prolific passers in Michigan High School Athletic Association history.
Jon Wassink capped a banner high school career last fall by guiding the Sailors to a Division 4 championship with a dramatic 28-27 win over Lansing Sexton.
Wassink, a three-year starter, took his talents to Western Michigan University, but not before finishing second all-time in the MHSAA record book for career passing yards with 8,124.
In fact, Wassink’s name appears in the MHSAA record book 17 times despite playing only three varsity seasons. He’s third in career passing attempts (884), second in completions (584) and fifth in touchdown passes (76).
“We’re never going to replace a Jon Wassink; there’s no doubt about that,” Tamminga said after practice last week. “But I have two kids right now fighting for the quarterback position, and whichever one gets the job is going to be a very good high school quarterback. Maybe an all-conference quarterback, I’m not sure, but the quarterback position right now is pretty far down on my worry list.
“We have other things to worry about. Our line, our receivers, but we’re going to be fine with our quarterback. We’re going to score some points.”
Besides Wassink, the Sailors graduated a bevy of talent from a senior class that won 12 straight games after an 0-2 start to win their second MHSAA Final in three seasons.
Eighteen starters are gone, leaving behind a young team stacked with juniors and sophomores.
The only remaining starters are seniors Ezinga, Niewiek, John Masselink (TE/S) and Dylan Brink (RB/LB).
“We lost a great senior class, all the way down,” Tamminga said. “They were such great leaders, and the kids rallied around them. I told this year’s group that it’s their turn. They have to step up. You can win games with underclassmen, but to win consistently you have to have senior leadership, and that’s what I need from those guys. So far they have shown that, and we’re pretty proud of them.”
The person attempting to fill the void left by Wassink was yet to be determined at the start of this week. Junior Eric Dykstra and sophomore Andrew Haan are vying for the starting position.
Dykstra is the frontrunner, but recently suffered a wrist injury. That allowed Haan to take a majority of reps in practice and during the Sailors’ preseason scrimmage.
Tamminga said both have the potential to step in and lead this year’s squad.
“I would say Eric has the upper hand if healthy, but it is so close,” he said. “We don’t lose a beat with Andrew in there either. Both of them realize they have big shoes to fill, but what is so great is they don’t feel they have to be the next Jonny Wassink. They are going to be them, and they are going to be very good high school quarterbacks.”
South Christian also will miss Wassink’s ability to run the ball. He rushed for 3,252 yards and 50 touchdowns in three seasons.
“He definitely made big plays with his arm and his legs, which I think is going to hurt us the most,” Sailors’ right guard Josh Ezinga said. “He was such a two-dimensional player that defenses had to either prepare for him running-wise or passing-wise.
“And even though as a lineman you try not to miss a block, it happens once in a while, and he would just make a play and make you look like you’re the best in the world because he would make people miss.”
The absence of Wassink will be felt from a leadership standpoint as well. He wasn’t only a playmaker, he was there to help the younger players improve.
“Obviously Jon was a great player, but he also was a great leader,” senior wide receiver Jake Niewiek said. “He helped me a lot when I was getting started with the offense. Being a receiver in the system was a little complicated, but he really took us under his wing and showed us what we had to do.”
But Tamminga said adjustments have been made to atone for Wassink not being on the field in 2015.
“We basically had it pretty easy when he was here, and now we have to step up and coach to our strengths,” he said. “You have to coach differently because Jonny was like having another coach on the field. These kids are not going to be able to do the things that Jonny did. We have to adjust as coaches to compensate for that.”
The key losses by the Sailors have other teams chomping at the bit to dethrone the two-time Ottawa-Kent Gold champions.
But while others may deem this a down year, South Christian hopes to maintain the same tradition of winning to which it has become accustomed.
“I think there are different expectations for us from the public and the media, but I think all the pieces of the puzzle are there and we can still be a great team this year,” Ezinga said. “I definitely think we can win with sophomores and juniors, and they realize they have to go hard every single play.”
Niewiek agreed that this year’s team can still be a formidable challenger.
“Practices have been great and everyone has been working their butts off,” he said. “We obviously have lower expectations than last year, but we hope to surprise some people. We want to keep the bar set high.”
Tamminga said the first goal is to get to six wins, which won’t be easy with three straight playoff teams on the schedule to open the season.
“We want to make the playoffs,” he said. “Just make the playoffs, but what worries me is if we don’t have three good games and go 0-3. I still believe we can go 6-3 and make the playoffs. They have to believe it, and that’s the challenge ahead of us right now.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) South Christian’s Jake Niewiek celebrates a turnover during last season’s Division 4 Final at Ford Field. (Middle) The Sailors’ Jake Elzinga works to stay in front of a Sexton ball carrier; both he and Niewiek return this fall.
Five showdowns of undefeated teams highlight this week's Michigan high school statewide schedule as we begin our second-half buildup toward the end of the regular season.
If you're not watching in person, check out most of the matchups highlighted below, and several others, on MHSAA.tv. Check in as well with the MHSAA Scores page for all of them as they come in. (Games below are Friday unless noted.)
Bay & Thumb
Croswell-Lexington (5-0) at Almont (5-0) - Watch
Just past halfway through the Blue Water Area Conference schedule, half the teams are 3-1 or 4-0 in league play – with these the co-leaders. Croswell-Lexington hasn’t played a game closer than 19 points this fall, but did lose last year’s meeting with Almont 37-26. The Raiders, meanwhile, have won the last two weeks by seven and one point, respectively – but opened the season with three straight shutouts as the stifling defense they’ve become known for has given up only 34 points total.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lapeer (4-1) at Grand Blanc (3-2) - Watch, Linden (4-1) at Fenton (4-1) - Watch, Birch Run (4-1) at Freeland (5-0) - Watch, Madison Heights Lamphere (4-1) at Marine City (4-1).
Westland John Glenn (5-0) at Belleville (5-0) - Watch
Belleville’s 42-3 victory over Livonia Franklin last week was the team’s 30th straight, and the Tigers now own the state’s longest active winning streak with Powers North Central’s coming to an end at 41 on the same night. Belleville’s next challenger is John Glenn, which under second-year coach Jason Mensing has as many victories this fall as the last two combined and has nearly guaranteed its first winning season since 2014. Mensing guided his former team Ottawa Lake Whiteford through several memorable moments, and this will be the Rockets’ biggest so far under his leadership.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Gibraltar Carlson (4-1) at Trenton (4-1) - Watch, Romeo (3-2) at Macomb Dakota (4-1) - Watch, Lake Orion (5-0) at Rochester Adams (3-2) - Watch, Marine City Cardinal Mooney (3-2) at Clarkston Everest Collegiate (3-2) - Watch.
Goodrich (5-0) at Corunna (5-0) - Watch
The winner of this matchup clinches a share of the Flint Metro League Stars championship, similar to last season when Goodrich won the league and Corunna was second thanks to the Martians’ 42-7 win in their Week 5 matchup. Both arguably have been even better this fall. Goodrich has handed the only losses this season to Frankenmuth and Linden, and Corunna has given up only 31 points this season and no more than 17 in a game while scoring at least 38 every time out.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Evart (4-1) at Beal City (5-0) - Watch, Grand Ledge (5-0) at DeWitt (2-2) - Watch, Fowler (5-0) at Pewamo-Westphalia (4-1) - Watch, Montrose (4-1) at New Lothrop (4-1) - Watch.
Northern Lower Peninsula
Charlevoix (4-1) at Elk Rapids (2-3)
There’s more riding here than the initial glance my indicate. Charlevoix, with a win, would clinch a share of the Northern Michigan Football Conference Leaders title – its first since 2020 and after finishing second to Boyne City both of the past two seasons. The Rayders haven’t had a game closer than 13 points since falling to Traverse City St. Francis by one in their season opener. Elk Rapids got off to a tough start but has won two straight – both in shutouts – and is looking for its first win over Charlevoix since 2018.
Southeast & Border
Jackson (4-1) at Adrian (4-1) - Watch
Jackson has a chance to set up a Week 7 winner-take-all matchup with Chelsea for the Southeastern Conference White championship – a nice jump after finishing third last season. The Vikings haven’t defeated Chelsea since 2018 but lost by a respectable 17-0 last fall. But they can’t overlook Adrian, still enjoying its best season since 2016 despite falling to Chelsea 28-18 last week. The Maples would love to hand Jackson a loss tonight and cheer for the Vikings next week with a title share possible.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Michigan Center (4-1) at Grass Lake (4-1) - Watch, Flat Rock (4-1) at Milan (3-2) - Watch, Ann Arbor Huron (3-2) at Saline (5-0) - Watch, Hudson (5-0) at Blissfield (3-2) - Watch.
Parma Western (5-0) at Battle Creek Harper Creek (4-1)
We’re halfway through the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference schedule, and this has emerged as an important matchup with Parma Western tied with Hastings for first and Harper Creek only a game back after falling to the Saxons 34-6 last week. The Beavers struggled to 3-6 a year ago but already have avenged 2022 losses to Battle Creek Lakeview, Battle Creek Central and Marshall – and Western defeated them 34-0 last season before Harper Creek went 2-1 to finish the fall. Western’s defense is a notable strength again, giving up only 37 points total this season despite taking on Dearborn Divine Child and Detroit Country Day over the first two weeks.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Paw Paw (5-0) at Edwardsburg (3-2) - Watch, Constantine (4-1) at Allegan (4-1) - Watch, St. Joseph (3-2) at Portage Northern (5-0) - Watch, Muskegon Catholic Central (3-2) at Schoolcraft (4-1) - Watch.
Gladstone (4-1) at Menominee (5-0)
This is the first of three games that will tell a lot about Menominee’s season as the Maroons enter this stretch alone atop the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper at 4-0 but with Gladstone, Week 7 opponent Negaunee and Week 8 opponent Kingsford all 3-1 in league play. While this is a new conference for the Maroons this season, they have plenty of history with Gladstone as both came from the Great Northern Conference – and Menominee had won three straight in the series before Gladstone’s 28-6 victory last fall. Gladstone’s lone defeat this year came Week 3 to Kingsford, 35-12.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Maple City Glen Lake (3-2) at Sault Ste. Marie (3-2) - Watch, Manistique (3-2) at Iron Mountain (5-0) - Watch, Marquette (2-2) at Escanaba (1-4) - Watch, Houghton (2-3) at Calumet (1-4) - Watch.
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (4-1) at East Grand Rapids (5-0)
We’ve been watching East Grand Rapids’ rejuvenation this fall with this among games circled for special attention, and Forest Hills Central’s 15-14 loss to Byron Center last week hardly lessens the intrigue. The Rangers are still among favorites statewide in Division 3, ranked No. 2, and East Grand Rapids is right behind them this week at No. 3 (while Byron Center is No. 2 in Division 2). The Ottawa-Kent Conference White title won’t be decided with this matchup, but it surely will be impacted – and the Rangers have defeated EGR all three times they’ve met since the Pioneers rejoined the division in 2020.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Allendale (5-0) at Spring Lake (4-1), Lowell (4-1) at Byron Center (5-0), Caledonia (4-1) at Hudsonville (4-1) - Watch, Zeeland East (4-1) at Muskegon (3-2).
Mendon (5-0) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (5-0) - Watch
Movement on the overall 8-player enrollment list have made this a matchup we’ll see just this once this fall, as Mendon – last year’s Division 2 runner-up – has moved to Division 1 and is ranked No. 2, while Lenawee Christian is top-ranked in Division 2 after winning Division 1 titles in 2020 and 2021 and reaching a Regional Final last year. Still, many 8-player eyes will be watching. The Cougars have given up just 32 points this season and no more than 12 in a game, and that defense should be part of the key matchup within the matchup because Mendon is scoring 52 per contest and coming off an 80-point performance.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Carson City-Crystal (5-0) at Coleman (4-1) - Watch, Brown City (5-0) at Mayville (5-0) - Watch, St. Ignace (5-0) at Newberry (4-1), Norway (4-1) at Ontonagon (4-1) - Watch.
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PHOTO Muskegon Catholic Central and Orchard View players reach to get a hand on the ball during their meeting this season. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)