ROCHESTER HILLS LUTHERAN NORTHWEST PREVIEW: Crusaders enter 25th season with hopes for another league title
BY DAN STICKRADT
ROCHESTER HILLS — In all reality, Don Justice didn’t know what to think last season when Rochester Hills Lutheran Northwest took the football field. The veteran coach had watched his team win back-to-back league championships and reach the postseason both times with senior-heavy teams.
So when the Crusaders shared the Michigan Independent Athletic Conference crown with Sterling Heights Parkway Christian and Grosse Pointe Woods University-Liggett last season, Northwest never had to wear the rebuilding tag, even though they carried eight sophomores and two freshmen on varsity last season.
This year with six returning starters back on offense and eight on defense, the Crusaders are favored to win the six-team league once again. There are 22 players on varsity and 24 on junior varsity.
“I think we potentially have the chance to have a good season,” admitted Justice, who is in his eighth season at Northwest. “We have a couple of guys that are banged up a little right now. But we do have a lot of experience.”
Before Justice came aboard, Northwest had only reached the postseason one time, that coming in 1999. Now the Crusaders have made it four times in six years.
This season is the silver anniversary for Crusaders football, launched in 1987, and it could result in Northwest’s sixth trip to the postseason if it plays up to expectations.
Northwest should be able to move the football, with the return of junior quarterback Nathan Drews (6-1, 185). The heady signal-caller threw for more than 1,600 yards last season as a sophomore and is also a good leader, starting in basketball since he was a freshman as well. He also handles the team’s kicking and punting duties.
Senior Matt Gapski (5-10, 190) is a returning starter at running back and is the top option on the ground, while junior newcomer Ben Agosta (5-8,160) will also be a factor. Junior Josh Morrison (6-0, 170) and senior Cameron Morris (6-0, 165) are the team’s top receivers, while junior receiver Ian Wellhousen (6-0,175) will also have his number called.
Junior Greg Maynard (6-3, 190) leads the line at tackle and senior Austin Meissner (6-0, 200) returns at guard. Junior Mark Gnewuch (5-9,185) will also move into a starting role on the offensive line.
Northwest lost two of its final three games last season, including a 54-0 shutout by Genesee in the opening round of the Division 7 districts. Most of that defense is back with experience and should be a tougher unit to score upon this season.
Gapski, Meissner and senior Nathan Reinhold (5-10, 170) heads up the linebackers, while Maynard is back at defensive end and sophomore Nick Raby (5-11, 225) is back at tackle. Senior Colin Sheehan (6-2, 190) also started games at defensive end last season.
Morrison, Drews and senior Cameron Morris (6-0, 165) will hold the fort in the secondary, along with Wellhousen. Agosta and Gnewuch hope to gain starting roles as linebackers.
The Crusaders aren;t very big but have mobile players with quickness.
“We’re not very big, as compared the past few years,” offered Justice. “But we move fairly well.”
In a league such as the MIAC, most of the teams have less than 25 players, so numbers are always an issue. Still, Northwest has enough talent to cover all of the bases and the experience to contend for a league championship and beyond.
“When I first came here, I think the goal was to just win games. There hadn’t been very many winning seasons,” said Justice, who has recorded four of the six winning seasons in school history. “I think that has changed. It’s fun knowing going into the season that you will at least be competitive.
“We’ve had a JV team now for a few years, so younger guys aren’t always forced to play varsity,” continued Justice. “We can groom them and get them ready, so by the time they are juniors, they can step in and help. I think the program has come a long ways. We’re excited to see what we can do this year. I really think we can win the league again, based on what we have and what the other teams have coming back.”
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