Three Rivers Takes Run at District Together
October 31, 2017
By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
J.J. Wagner is economical with his words, stoic on the sideline, and not preoccupied with statistical trends. All he really asks of his Three Rivers football players is to play and sacrifice for one another.
It’s been a pretty good recipe throughout his 13-year tenure as the head varsity coach of the Wildcats, at least in the years when the players truly held up their end of the bargain. With an 82-50 career record since 2005, Wagner has seen what can happen when everyone is pulling in the same direction, like a 13-0 run that ended with a loss in the 2009 Division 4 Final.
He’s also witnessed how complacency can cut a program right back down, as was the case in 2010 when an experienced Three Rivers squad went 4-5 and missed the postseason.
The Wildcats have been noticeably hungrier the last two years, with a 7-3 mark in 2016 and an 8-2 record this year as they prepare for Friday’s Division 4 District championship game against Edwardsburg.
Eleven games into the year, Three Rivers has been unable to break out of a Wolverine Conference bubble. The Wildcats went 7-2 in the league, with losses to Dowagiac (Week 2) and Vicksburg (Week 9). Revenge was sweet last Friday as Three Rivers beat Vicksburg in the Pre-District game (20-10).
Now, the difficult task of beating the league’s most dominant team for the second time in one year is what’s required to move on in the playoffs. If Three Rivers can beat the Eddies (after also doing so 21-18 in Week 7), there’s a chance they’ll face Wolverine Conference member Plainwell in the Regional Round.
“You get through the Wolverine (schedule) and then you’re suddenly in a mini Wolverine tournament,” Wagner joked.
There are no secrets in terms of playoff prep against such familiar foes, so it’s all about the basics.
“Our offense has been moving the sticks, our defense has been playing well, our special teams have played well and we play well when we don’t turn the ball over,” he said.
Having played for perennial power Mendon, where he registered 253 tackles as an outside linebacker during the 1987-89 seasons, Wagners’ emphasis on that side of the ball has been a hallmark of the 2017 campaign. Three Rivers has only allowed 11.7 points and 203 yards per game. The Wildcats have stopped opponents on third down 79.8 percent of the time.
A lot of that has to do with big and athletic senior defensive end Tirrell Hausmanis (6-foot-4, 245 pounds), senior defensive tackle Tyler Moore (5-11, 235) and the linebacker duo of senior Chris Morrill (5-10, 160) and Traven Van Oss (6-1, 165). That group alone has accounted for 34.5 tackles for loss this season. Morrill and Van Oss are tied for a team-best 61 tackles.
“Anytime you’re playing good defense, you can take a few more chances on offense,” Wagner said. “I don’t know how many times we’ve gone for it on fourth down this year, but it’s probably more than most (years). You can take a chance at midfield or the 40 that maybe you wouldn’t normally.”
Perhaps no player has embraced Wagner’s rule of doing what’s best for the team more than Hausmanis, who likely would have garnered a lot more attention from college coaches had he stayed at tight end. Instead, he’s anchored both lines the past two seasons.
“We all just do our jobs,” he said. “This happened and we weren’t big enough (on the offensive line) for me to play tight end. They needed me at tackle. At first I didn’t really like it, but I had to get used to it because it was what was best for the team. It helped us succeed and win, so I had to do it.”
His defensive stats might not seem that impressive — 30 tackles with two sacks — but it’s what he’s capable of that impacts the game so severely.
“It helps when you know people are going to run away from (Hausmanis), so you can stunt and play games on the other side that can mess with their protections and blocking schemes,” Wagner said.
Wagner admitted he’s not big on stats, but for those who were wondering about how many times the offense has felt comfortable gambling on fourth down because of a belief in the defense, it’s 27. The Wildcats have converted 15 times (55.6 percent).
Other than knowing the defense could likely bail it out if needed, there’s been plenty of confidence in the offense under the leadership of junior quarterback Jalen Heivilin.
With a 22-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, an average of 214.6 passing yards per game and a completion rate of 61 percent, the first-year starter has settled in nicely. Classmate Gavin Charvat has been Heivilin’s favorite target as the two have connected 42 times for 562 yards and six touchdowns. Bryce Morlan was next in line with 32 receptions for 549 yards and a team-high 11 TDs, but the senior went down in Week 9 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Fortunately for the Wildcats they also have reliable receivers in Jett Haifley and Zac Meyer; each has hauled in 23 passes for around 400 yards.
“When we play mistake-free, which is what we harp on, and eliminate pre- and post-snap penalties, you can win a lot of games,” Wagner said. “That’s what we focus on every week. If you can do that, you’re going to keep yourself in a lot of games.”
That was exactly the difference in Three Rivers’ home win against Edwardsburg on Oct. 6, which snapped a 34-game Wolverine Conference winning streak by the Eddies.
“We have to play with that same energy and effort (against Edwardsburg),” Wagner added. “In both of our losses, we came out kind of flat. If I knew why, we wouldn’t do it. We think we can go in there (at Edwardsburg) and play them tough again. It boiled down to mistakes in that (first meeting). We made our extra points, and we held them on all theirs. If we go in there with the same discipline, there’s no reason we can’t beat them again.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Three Rivers’ defense lines up for a play; it’s been stifling this season giving up only 11.7 points per game. (Middle) Receiver Nolan Mark and quarterback Jalen Heivilin (4) talk things over against Edwardsburg. (Photos courtesy of JoeInsider.com.)
Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com 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:
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.)