Undefeated Cassopolis Continues to Climb
By Wes Morgan
Special for MHSAA.com
October 5, 2017
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.)
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.)