By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
This is not your father’s Muskegon Mona Shores football team.
Or even your older brother’s.
This is not the team that went its first 51 years of football without making the MHSAA playoffs and whose only traffic jams leaving its parking lot occurred early in the third quarter – when the band was done performing.
Heading into one of the state’s marquee Week 3 matchups at home against perennial Division 1 powerhouse Rockford, Shores is looking to snap a 10-game losing streak against the Rams, which has included some forgettable affairs like a 49-7 loss in 2000 and 10-7 loss last fall, the Sailors’ lone regular-season defeat.
“Great job tonight,” Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak told his huddled players last Thursday night, allowing them a few seconds to enjoy their 2-0 start and a dominating 55-14 win over host Fruitport, before quickly shifting gears.
“But now we have Rockford coming to our place. We can’t make the mistakes we made tonight, or they will make us pay for it. We have to play top-notch.”
The emergence of Mona Shores as a power has changed the landscape of football, not only in the Muskegon area, but West Michigan as a whole. As other Muskegon-area schools struggle with declining enrollment – most notably Muskegon High, Muskegon Heights and Muskegon Catholic Central – Mona Shores is now the largest school in Muskegon County and a legitimate force, bursting onto the state scene with a memorable run to last year’s Division 2 championship game at Ford Field.
After putting up 55 points in back-to-back wins over Holland West Ottawa and Fruitport to open the season (and with their defense not allowing a single point), the Sailors are showing that the 2014 season was far from a flash in the pan.
“Last year we were the hunters; now we’re the hunted,” explained senior quarterback Tyler Trovinger, who set a school record with six TD passes in the Week 2 win over Fruitport. “We have to be great because no one is looking past us anymore.”
The Sailors’ fortunes, and attitudes, began to change in 2011 with the hiring of Koziak as head football coach. He turned out to be the perfect choice, as a 1994 Mona Shores graduate who cut his coaching teeth at Muskegon High School under Tony Annese, serving as offensive coordinator when the Big Reds won MHSAA titles in 2006 and 2008 and as head coach for one year in 2009.
His words upon taking the Mona Shores job in 2011 were prophetic:
“I'm tired of people badmouthing my school,” Koziak told The Muskegon Chronicle at that time. “I’ve heard people say the Shores kids are cake-eaters. It’s not true. There are a lot of blue-collar kids and families there. I’m excited to change the football culture.”
While Koziak knew Shores football history, he also was smart enough to recognize changes that needed to be made – beginning with the installation of the spread option, veer attack which was so effective across town at Muskegon High.
The most notable player was quarterback Tyree Jackson, who Koziak inserted into the starting lineup as a 5-foot-9 freshman. After struggling mightily and making people question whether the new coach was running the wrong system, Jackson sprouted to 6-4 and started throwing to targets like Asantay Brown and Marquon Sargent.
Brown is now a starting safety at Western Michigan University, Sargent is at Grand Valley State University and Jackson is a freshman quarterback at the University of Buffalo, but the Mona Shores system and the athletes haven’t missed a beat.
Trovinger (5-11, 200 pounds) has stepped into Jackson’s big shoes and possesses a cannon for an arm and terrific running ability.
Trovinger’s passing options are nothing short of an embarrassment of riches. Three of the starters in the Sailors’ four-wide attack have already made Division I college commitments – Hunter Broersma (6-2, 190) and Darece Roberson (5-9, 165) to Western Michigan and Kobe Burse (6-3, 205) to Miami of Ohio – with the fourth starter being dangerous Deandre Oakes-Owens (6-0, 175), an all-league selection as a defensive back last season.
“We have a ton of weapons, no doubt,” Trovinger said. “When we’re all focused, we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
The defense is led by two more senior standouts who could possibly sign with Division I schools. Dom Shermeta (6-0, 215) is a Chris Spielman clone at middle linebacker and a battering-ram fullback, and Christian Boyd (6-2, 280) is a run-stuffer at left defensive tackle.
Koziak said a big part of the Shores turnaround is the supportive administration, notably seventh-year athletic director Ryan Portenga, the outspoken, energetic and unapologetic leader of the Shores athletic program.
Portenga has written a book about the Mona Shores football turnaround and the storybook 2014 season, entitled: “Flipping Football: A True Story of Resilience and Transformation.” The book, which costs $20, will be released Friday, in conjunction with the Rockford game.
“It’s a story that needed to be told,” said Portenga, who noted that half of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Shores athletic program.
So … with all of this talent, all this excitement, all this momentum (even a book!), are the Sailors ready to take the next step and knock off the biggest kid on the block – Rockford? Or will the Rams’ mystique win out again?
It’s the same question Muskegon-area residents were asking last October, when the upstart Sailors traveled to historic Hackley Stadium to face the Big Reds, which had downed Shores 14 games in a row. Shores matched the athletes for Muskegon and made believers out of many in a convincing 48-27 victory.
While every eye in Muskegon was on that game, many eyes from around the state will now be on Sailor Stadium when a senior-laden Rockford team comes to town Friday, looking to swat away the latest challenger to its perch atop the West Michigan football heap.
Rockford (1-1) is coming off a 47-0 romp over visiting Holt, and will bring its usual big offensive line, bevy of running backs and unparalleled special teams – especially senior kicker and punter Quinn Nordin, who has committed to sign with Penn State University.
The Rams have extra motivation as coach Ralph Munger has 299 career coaching victories over his 36-year career, the first 12 spent at Frankenmuth and the past 24 at Rockford. His next win would make him the 11th coach in state history to register 300 wins.
Shores is not motivated to deny Munger, but rather to avenge last year’s 10-7 loss at Rockford. In that game, Roberson scored on a 79-yard run on the first play from scrimmage, but failed to score again, fumbling twice in the fourth quarter.
With a huge crowd expected for the rematch, Koziak said his players will be motivated to come out and not let another game against the Rams slip away.
“We talked about how Rockford beat us last year,” said Koziak, who is assisted on the varsity level by Brian Sikkenga, Holsey James and Aaron James, Chris Hilliker and Kyle Brott. “They have that in the back of their minds that they let one get away, and that’s motivation for them.
“I think there’s a new energy for football with what we’ve been able to build the last four years. The community has waited forever for this. They’re ecstatic.”
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) Mona Shores’ Darece Roberson strides for additional yardage during last season’s MHSAA Division 2 Final against Warren DeLaSalle. (Middle) Tyler Trovenger, surrounded by teammates, celebrates his third-quarter touchdown catch at Ford Field. He moved to quarterback this fall.
Separated by 527 travel miles – whether over Mackinac Bridge or around Lake Michigan, the Novara family celebrated nearly parallel football successes this fall.
At Portland, John Novara completed his 25th season as head coach leading the Raiders to a 12-1 record – their best since finishing Division 5 runner-up in 2018, and a second-straight Capital Area Activities Conference White championship on the way to reaching the Division 4 Semifinals.
At Kingsford, fifth-year coach Mark Novara led the Flivvers to a 10-2 record – their best since posting the same in 2004. Kingsford shared the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title and won a Division 5 District title, its first District championship since 2009.
John Novara graduated from Iron Mountain in 1989, and younger brother Mark graduated from Kingsford in 1993.
Similarly parallel, both teams were quarterbacked by Novaras. Dominic Novara directed the Raiders’ attack, and cousin Nic Novara led the Flivvers. Both are juniors. (Mark Novara was a Division III All-American at quarterback at Lakeland College in Wisconsin.)
One more connection: Portland athletic director Kevin Veale quarterbacked the Iron Mountain teams with John Novara as tight end long before they worked together downstate. Veale’s nephew Garrett Veale was a standout two-way lineman for Mark Novara and Kingsford this fall.
Small gesture, memorable connection
Dante DeGrazia’s senior season was sadly short-lived this fall, as he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of South Lyon East’s opening game against White Lake Lakeland at Michigan Stadium.
But an official provided a memory the DeGrazias will not forget.
Chris Curtis had begun his 16th season as an official earlier that day at U-M, and stuck around to watch the Lakes Valley Conference matchup. A month later, he was officiating the East/Warren Mott game, and made sure to check in with DeGrazia – a small gesture, but a meaningful one as well and another reminder of the interconnectedness of communities within educational athletics.
“When he heard my son wasn't able to play anymore, needed surgery and that he was a senior, he offered him kindness and a hug on the field,” Dante’s mother Dana DeGrazia wrote to East athletic director Greg Michaels. “As a parent whose son is going through a rough time dealing with losing his senior season, hearing this story from Dante means a lot to me and the support that was given to him and I wanted to reach out and tell him thank you.”
PHOTOS (Top) Kingsford football coach Mark Novara, far left, quarterback Nic Novara and Portland coach (and uncle) John Novara celebrate the Flivvers' District title. (Middle) South Lyon East's Dante DeGrazia (33) and official Chris Curtis meet for a quick hug during East's Week 5 game. (Photos courtesy of the Portland football program and DeGrazia family, respectively.)