Superb Seniors Bringing Gladwin to Ford Field as 1st-Time Football Finalist

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

November 23, 2022

Nick Wheeler had a feeling growing up that he and his Gladwin classmates could have some success when it was their time to lead the Flying Gs varsity football program.

Bay & ThumbHe just had no idea how much.

“I never saw the state championship,” the Gladwin senior quarterback and safety said. “I saw us winning the Jack Pine Conference, which was something that hadn’t been done in a while.”

Wheeler and his teammates have blown past those expectations and are now one win away from what once felt impossible.

Led by a strong senior class, Gladwin will play in an MHSAA Football Final for the first time Saturday. In Division 5, the Flying Gs will take on Frankenmuth, which is also seeking its first football title.

“This has been our dream since we’ve been in high school,” senior linebacker and running back Logan Kokotovich said. “We went down (to Ford Field) to watch games my freshman year, and it was amazing. Back before high school, we were blowing teams out of the water. Everyone thought we could be good, but we knew we had to really work hard to get there.”

Gladwin football was in a much different place when Wheeler, Kokotovich and their classmates entered high school. The program had won just six games total over the previous three seasons, and hadn’t been to the postseason since 2014.

“I remember going to games when I was young and we would always lose,” Kokotovich said. “I would tell my dad, ‘That’s not a surprise.’”

Senior Lincoln McKinnon works to shed a blocker and get to the GRCC quarterback.As the Class of 2023 entered the high school, the Flying Gs were getting new leadership. Marc Jarstfer took over as head coach in 2019 after being an assistant at his alma mater – and Gladwin’s arch rival – Clare.

“I had no idea of what was coming up,” Jarstfer said. “I didn’t really pay attention to the youth programs (at Gladwin) or that sort of thing. I was familiar with the current situation. I think in that first year our staff was here, we saw that group had pretty significant potential. They went undefeated on JV with two freshmen playing on varsity. We figured if they continue to work hard and do the right things, they could be very good.”

Kokotovich and receiver/safety Kaden McDonald both played varsity as freshmen, and 10 members of the Class of 2023 played varsity as sophomores. 

It was during that 2020 season that the turnaround started to feel more like reality. Gladwin went 4-4, but its three regular-season losses were by a combined 24 points. It also had a win against Division 2 Dexter, which featured multiple college prospects.

“That’s when I started noticing it,” Wheeler said. “We were in close games with teams that we were never close with before, like Clare and Beaverton. And we were just young sophomores.”

The following year was a true breakthrough, as Gladwin went 9-0, claiming its first Jack Pine title in 20 years and winning it outright for the first time ever. Gladwin got there by defeating Clare for the first time in 40 years. 

Earl Esiline keeps his feet on the icy turf. Then, in the first round of the playoffs, the Flying Gs’ season came to an abrupt halt, with a loss to that same Clare team.

It was humbling, but also motivating.

“We just thought we were the best,” Wheeler said. “That really put us down and made us work even harder for next season to achieve our goal. The coaches, they put pictures right in front of our squat rack of Clare beating us. So that’s looking at us every time we lift.”

The motivation clearly worked, as Gladwin repeated its 9-0 regular season, winning a second-straight Jack Pine title. This time, however, the Flying Gs were even more dominant. They outscored their regular-season opponents by a combined 444-48, with 27 of those points allowed coming in their 33-27 win at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep.

But nothing Gladwin accomplished could compare to its 28-21 Semifinal win against Grand Rapids Catholic Central. The Cougars had won Finals titles in four of the past five seasons, including the past two Division 5 titles. It was the first postseason loss for Catholic Central since 2018.

“Everybody doubted us going into that game,” Wheeler said. “Grand Rapids Catholic Central, everybody thinks they’re just the best, but we just took it as they were another team. We didn’t think of them any differently. Everybody (on the team) believed. It was probably the best feeling of my life.”

The Flying Gs are now one win away from an even better feeling. But no matter what happens at Ford Field on Saturday, they’ve already established themselves as the group that turned the program around. 

That’s a feeling that’s made even more special by the fact they’ve been able to do it with their lifelong friends.

“It is definitely going to be something I remember for the rest of my life,” Kokotovich said. “This group of guys is everything. We’ve pushed each other so much, and it’s all just falling together. This is awesome.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Gladwin's Logan Kokotovich (12) holds onto the ball during Saturday's Semifinal win over Grand Rapids Catholic Central. (Middle) Senior Lincoln McKinnon works to shed a blocker and get to the GRCC quarterback. (Below) Earl Esiline keeps his feet on the icy turf. (Photos by Mike Kolleth.)

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.)