White Pigeon Building On 2018 Surge

By Wes Morgan
Special for MHSAA.com

September 10, 2019

There won’t be any halftime ceremonies years from now celebrating the White Pigeon football team’s accomplishments in 2018. There’s no engraved award to display in the trophy case. 

But the Chiefs’ 7-3 season certainly rejuvenated the program and its supporters.

That it will spark prolonged success remains to be seen, admitted second-year head coach Shawn Strawser, who isn’t interested in making bold predictions. What he can say with certainty is his players are committed, disciplined, physical and hungry for another taste.

Leading up to last fall, White Pigeon had just one winning season (5-4 in 2014) since its last playoff appearance in 2009, a year that resulted in a 9-2 mark with a Division 7 Pre-District win over Decatur. Last year, the schedule paired the Chiefs with what would turn out to be the top two teams in the Southwest 10 Conference during the first three weeks of the season. Losses to Centreville (22-12) and Cassopolis (28-12) sandwiched a 38-8 victory over Marcellus. But White Pigeon went on to win its final six regular-season games to qualify for the postseason, a march which included the program’s first win over Mendon in 20 years (although the Hornets got revenge in the Division 8 Pre-District round with an 8-6 win over White Pigeon).

It all happened quickly from Strawser’s perspective. When Joseph Morsaw resigned as the head coach at the end of 2017, administrators turned to Strawser and Mike Gropp — a duo with past varsity experience who had spent recent years guiding the middle school program. Strawser was just about to leave for a vacation in St. Lucia and needed to think about whether he wanted to deal with everything that comes with the top spot at the varsity level.

“I called Mike and I was like, ‘We’re going to have to do this, aren’t we?’” Strawser said. “Mike was like, ‘Yep.’

“We had a nice group of seniors. I had actually coached those kids when they were in Rocket. I knew them all real well.”

Strawser also knew he needed to do a little recruiting, starting with then-junior Stone Kemp, who turned his focus as a freshman and sophomore to leading a Bible study after school rather than playing football.

“He’s very persuasive, and so he got me back into it,” said Kemp, who finished with 398 rushing yards on 82 carries (4.9 per carry) and seven touchdowns as the Chiefs’ second back behind senior Carlos Castro in 2018. “I decided it would be a good place to be, and I think that’s where God wanted me.”

The benefits were twofold, Strawser said. It was obvious what Kemp brought to the team in terms of production, but Strawser noticed the positive impact Kemp had on his teammates as well.

“He’s a great athlete and an even better kid,” Strawser explained. “He is truly an all-around football player. Last year he played defensive end and outside linebacker. We stuck him out to cover one-on-one. This year we moved him back to safety. He has great hands and can pretty much do anything we ask him to do. He’s such a versatile player. He picked it up pretty fast for being out a couple years. He popped right back in like he didn’t miss a beat.”

To open the 2019 season, Kemp rushed for three touchdowns and returned the opening kickoff for a score in a 54-0 White Pigeon victory over Bloomingdale. He caught a touchdown pass in Week 2 in the Chiefs’ 14-8 win at Decatur, which required a goal-line stand during the final minute.

“It has been very enjoyable,” Strawser said of the program’s turnaround. “That was the whole point. On the bubble wasn’t good enough. We really wanted these kids to buy in, believe what we were doing and reap the rewards of their hard work. We preached every day mental toughness.

“Each time we had a successful game the confidence just grew. It has been a real fun ride. They were eager to do well. It paid off. We haven’t earned anything or proved anything this year yet, so we just have to keep grinding away.”

Though the Chiefs lost a ton of talent to graduation, people familiar with the program believed they could fill those voids. With 19 players on the roster, including three sophomores, the Chiefs have been able to do that, including a great effort from an offensive line that consists of a mix of experience and youth.

Captain and three-year starter Kobie DeBruine, a tackle who can play guard, sets the tone for a group that includes capable tight ends Dominick Pant – who has packed on 20 pounds of muscle since last season – and Chris Bontrager, guards Beau Freedline and Luke Gropp, and sophomore center Lane Esarey.

“That was the biggest question mark going into this season is that we were pretty young on the offensive line,” said Strawser, whose son, Lincoln Strawser, is back as a senior to guide the offense at quarterback. “They really got to work and made a lot of improvement from the scrimmage to Week 1.”

Now the Chiefs are after their first playoff victory since 2009 and fourth since 1990.

“We’re just looking for big things this year,” Kemp said. “This year I know it’s my last year to do it, so I just want to make the most out of every opportunity I get. I kind of like how people underrate us because it gives us a chance to show what we’ve got.”

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) White Pigeon defenders track down a ball carrier during their Week 1 win over Bloomingdale. (Middle) Stone Kemp breaks away on a long run. (Photos by John Gentry.)

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:

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.)