By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
Getting to the postseason wasn’t the issue for the Cassopolis varsity football program, which is currently ranked No. 6 in the latest Associated Press Division 7 poll and has earned playoff berths 11 times since 2000.
It was taking that next step.
Now in his fifth year guiding the program, head coach Dan Purlee, a Cassopolis graduate, former athlete and longtime assistant coach, helped push the school past that barrier. And 2016 was the program’s banner year.
The Rangers ripped through all their opponents last season except for a talented Buchanan squad in Week 5. Throughout their 8-1 run during the regular season, the Rangers were on the right side of a 365-130 scoring differential. They went on to outscore their first three playoff foes 141-49.
Cassopolis, which also boasted a 4-0 mark to win the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference Red championship, finished last year 11-2 with a 54-22 loss to Detroit Loyola in the Division 7 Semifinals.
Just a year earlier, Cassopolis recorded a 9-3 record in 2015, falling to Pewamo-Westphalia in the Regional round. The Rangers’ 48-14 victory against Bridgman that fall earned the program its first District championship.
“We’ve put together a few good years here,” said Purlee, whose team, led by six returning seniors, is 6-0 heading into Friday’s game against Southwest 10 Conference opponent Hartford. “We’re playing pretty good football, but you always feel like there’s room for improvement, and there is. But we like where we’re at this year, and we’re proud of our success and accomplishments over the previous few years.”
Purlee doesn’t easily accept the credit. He promptly shifted the focus to the student-athletes and his astute assistants, including Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Jim Myers, who has 42 years of coaching under his belt and previously was the head coach at Niles Brandywine. And there’s also Steve Green, who has been coaching alongside Purlee at Cassopolis the last 18 years.
“We’ve done it together,” Purlee said. “Your coaching buddies — it goes beyond coaching. They’re like your brothers.”
Cassopolis athletics director Matt Brawley had high praise for Purlee.
“He’s a professional,” Brawley said. “He’s extremely detailed and has a game plan for every situation. He’s very impressive to watch.”
Brawley also pointed out that, with a current team grade-point average of 3.40, a second consecutive academic all-state award is on the horizon.
Running the full house T formation offense, no one player has had to carry the load. Statistical information was only available through the Rangers’ first five games, but senior Brandon Anderson and junior Tyrese Hunt-Thompson had combined for nearly 500 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Xander Smith had rushed for more than 250 yards with a couple passing touchdowns as well.
Junior Hunter Parsons had rushed for 266 yards through five contests, and quarterback Dylan Green has been responsible for four passing TDs. Keep in mind, most of the starters have watched the second half from the sideline most of the year with games well in hand.
“We have the ability to run a little shotgun spread,” Purlee said. “We’re pretty diverse offensively. Teams were really loading up the box on us and we’re not traditionally very big up front, so we realized we were going to need to counter that with spreading the field a little bit.
“We’ve just had a stretch here where we’ve had some kids who are extremely athletic and can catch the ball and quarterbacks that can throw the ball. We can pound it up the middle and also spread you out.”
Defensively, freshman outside linebacker Ahsan Hart boasts 33 tackles and a pair of sacks, senior Kyjuan Lanier, a captain at middle linebacker, has 29 tackles, two sacks and two fumble recoveries; and junior defensive end Skyler McKee has recorded 28 tackles with two sacks.
“We’re all comfortable with each other,” Lanier, a three-year varsity player, said. “It’s trust. I feel like if I don’t make a play, I’ve got Hunter Parsons right next to me coming up to make the tackle. Our secondary likes to come up and make plays. Our lines are disciplined.
“When I was younger, it was more coming downhill, filling holes and blitzing. As I’ve gotten older, it is recognizing where the ball is going, watching linemen, seeing what they’re doing, watching a pulling guard … getting smarter rather than just running to the play.”
The Rangers, who have given up only 28 points all year, pin their ears back and keep the pressure on every snap.
“I think there are several factors,” Purlee said of his program’s building success. “We’ve had some really good players over the past few years, and we have some athletic and tough kids. When you have that, you can put together a pretty good football team. I feel like our coaches have done a great job in helping instill discipline. It’s a team that executes in all phases of the game. We work hard, and we’re well prepared. It’s a collaborative effort between good players, good coaches and the right type of kids.”
Instead of being content, having tasted this kind of success has only intensified the team’s appetite.
“They have been a committed group. They’re extremely focused,” Purlee added. “Obviously, we’re proud of what we’ve done the last two years, but we want to go further. We’re not going to limit our goals. The next step for us is to play in Ford Fieldhouse.
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) Casspolis' Tyrese Hunt-Thompson (2) follows his blockers into the line against Marcellus last week. (Middle) Rangers coach Dan Purlee confers with one of his linemen on the sideline. (Photos by Billie Austin.)
Ben Jones always had the same, simple message, even if it was 100 degrees and sunny or 35 degrees and raining sideways, and whether he was playing for a powerhouse like Muskegon Catholic Central or coaching a program trying to establish itself at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood.
“We get to play football today,” Jones would say, as many of those around him were complaining and grumbling.
It was never “have to” for Jones, but always “get to.”
Jones, who was about to start his second year as head coach at Cranbrook, had his life tragically cut short by a drunk driver who crashed into his vehicle as he was traveling home from work in Detroit on Aug. 19, 2020. He was just 30 years old.
While Jones is gone, leaving a hole as large and painful as the 6-foot-2, 260-pound frame he carried as a tight end in his senior year at Hillsdale College, that “Get To” mentality is alive and well, and thriving and growing – thanks in large part to the efforts of his football teammates from Muskegon Catholic and later at Hillsdale.
The Get To Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was formed in Jones’ honor and has grown exponentially in less than three years, providing grants to sports organizations and scholarships to student-athletes.
“There is a core group of about 10 of them that have worked on (the foundation), and it’s been amazing,” said Theresa Jones, Ben’s mother, who with her husband Bruce has worked with the foundation. “It started small, and then it caught fire.”
The president of the foundation is Tim Hornak, Jones’ best friend and teammate in the trenches at both Muskegon Catholic and Hillsdale. Hornak returned to deliver a pre-game speech before the Crusaders’ home game on Sept. 15 against Kalamazoo United, where he talked about the man who is the inspiration behind the rapidly-growing Get To movement.
“You don’t have to, you get to – that simple difference can change your lives,” said Hornak, who teamed with Jones when both were seniors to help the Crusaders to a 14-0 record and the Division 8 championship in 2008. “You get to play football tonight and continue the tradition that started here in the 1950s.
“You get a chance to line up and play a great game with your best friends.”
Inspired by Hornak’s words and Jones’ legacy, the Crusaders downed Kalamazoo United 27-7 that night, the team’s second-straight win after an 0-2 start, which put them back in the Division 8 playoff picture.
A tailgate party was held before the game as a fundraiser for the Get To Foundation, and it happened to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Crusaders’ 2008 championship team – arguably one of the best teams in the school’s storied history. MCC has won 12 state championships, trailing only Farmington Hills Harrison in state playoff history.
The phrase “get to,” according to Hornak, goes back to the whiteboard in the MCC locker room his sophomore year and perfectly captures Jones’ approach to life and to football, whether his team was unbeaten like at MCC or struggling like the Chargers did just after he and Hornak graduated.
Jones, who wore No. 62 at MCC, was a two-way starting lineman who also played on the Crusaders’ 2006 championship team as a sophomore. His best friends on the team were the Hornak twins, Tim and Jon, whose father Mike was an assistant coach.
After his funeral service on Aug. 24, 2020, Jones’ hearse made a stop at MCC’s Kehren Stadium on the way to the cemetery, taking a lap on the track around Mike Holmes Field.
He went on to play on three teams which won or shared Great Lakes Interscholastic Athletic Conference titles at Hillsdale, where he wore No. 91 and played tight end and H-back.
“He had an inner self-confidence that you could tell right away when talking to him,” said Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein. “He was very positive. He encouraged his teammates.”
Jones graduated from Hillsdale in 2013 with a degree in financial management and a minor in mathematics, moved to Royal Oak and took a job as a portfolio manager and financial planner at Schwartz & Co. Investment Advisors.
In his free time, he worked as an assistant varsity football coach at Cranbrook from 2015 to 2018, before being elevated to head coach in 2019 at the age of 28.
One of his first actions as head coach was getting Cranbrook football T-shirts printed with the message “Get To” on the back. Jones guided the Cranes to a 6-4 record and a Division 4 playoff berth in what would prove to be his only season as head coach.
He died nine days before Cranbrook’s scheduled season opener in 2020, which ended up being delayed six weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the immediate aftermath of Jones’ shocking death, the Hornak brothers and other former teammates vowed to do something to honor Ben and to help out his family. Out of that mission, the Get To Foundation was born.
Get To has awarded scholarships for the past three years. In 2023 alone, the foundation awarded $16,000 in scholarships to 22 student-athletes from around the state.
In addition, Get To has awarded $55,000 in grants to 17 organizations – including $3,000 to the Eaton Rapids High School football program for new shoulder pads and helmets and $2,500 to the Detroit Tigers Foundation’s Gloves for Kids program.
The next event on the foundation’s busy calendar is a speech by best-selling motivational author Jon Gordon at Lawrence Tech University on Oct. 17.
The foundation’s board has trademarked the phrase “Get To” and hopes to continue to grow the organization’s size and scope – in a way mirroring how big and impactful Ben’s life could have been if it wasn’t cut short.
For more information or to make a donation, go to the organization’s website at www.gettofoundation.org.
The relentless efforts of Ben’s ex-teammates to keep his memory alive means the world to his parents, as well as his two younger siblings – Alissa, a standout swimmer at Hillsdale who is now the school’s assistant women’s swimming coach; and Nate, who also played football for the Chargers and is now a foreign currency trader for Barclay’s, based in New York City.
Theresa Jones said coming together with all of Ben’s closest friends for Get To Foundation events has been a continuous blessing for the family.
“Every time we have an event for the foundation, it’s all of Ben’s friends and family members dressed up and having a good time,” his mother said. “It always feels like Ben’s wedding reception that he never got to have.”
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) Ben Jones is shown before the 2008 Division 8 championship game at Ford Field during his senior year at Muskegon Catholic Central. The Crusaders defeated Crystal Falls Forest Park, 40-0. (Middle) Jones works with his linemen during his first year as head coach at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood in 2019. (Below) A plaque honoring Jones has been placed in the tunnel leading from the home locker room to the football field at Hillsdale College. (Top photo by Tim Reilly. Additional photos courtesy of the Get To Foundation.)