BY DAN STICKRADT
HOLLY — Something is quite different at Holly High School this August.
For the first time in 60 years, Holly opens up the prep football season with a target on its back. They enter the 2012 season as a defending co-league champion in the Flint Metro League champion.
Last October, Holly ended a lengthy 59-year drought, or six decades of not winning a league title.
“We have some different expectations now than we did when I came here a few years ago,” said Holly coach Ryan Culloty. “I guess this means we are doing something right.”
Johnny Williams thinks so as well. A third-year starter at quarterback, Williams is the reigning MVP of the FML.
“I still think we can be very good,” said Williams. “We are not as big as last year, but we have great team speed. We hope to use it.”
Of course, being in some new digs as a league champion — the Bronchos raised a banner at a basketball game back in February to celebrate the end of an enormous drought — it brings forth a great expectations and an different attitude and swagger for a team that was long considered a doormat program.
“Everyone will be gunning for us now,” noted Williams.
Football practice at over 650 members of the Michigan High School Athletic Association began practice at some point on Monday across the state. The members of the Christian Football League of Michigan, which is a league of small Christian high schools and home schooled athletes, also kicked off its fifth season on Monday.
The other fall sports — girls volleyball, boys soccer, girls golf, boys tennis, boys cross country, girls cross country and girls swimming and diving began preseason on Aug. 8. Games and tournaments in all sports will take place before the end of August, with football kicking off Aug.23-25.
“It is a great time of year,” said Culloty.
For nearly four decades, Bud Rowley has strutted out to the high school football field, 36 years at Oxford and two elsewhere. There’s no place where the colorful veteran would rather stand, snarl and yell.
“This is what I do. I’m a high school football coach. I coach Oxford football,” beamed Rowley. “I don’t golf. This is what I do.”
Last season Oxford righted the ship with a 7-3 record and a runner-up finish in a loaded OAA White Division, which produced five playoff teams. Two years ago in its first season in the OAA after three decades in the Flint Metro League, Oxford finished 3-6 and saw its string of 29 consecutive winning seasons come to an end.
This is Year 3 for life in the OAA White Division for Rowley’s Wildcats, who will not have the big names as last year but are by no means short on talent. Over half of the roster is back, plus a few players who were injured last season.
“We’ll be fine,” offered Rowley, eager to talk about his troops. “We still have a lot of very good football players.”
Several of Oxford’s players sported T-shirts talking about its long-standing philosophy about “Pounding the Rock.” The Wildcats will again feature a strong running game, even with Mr. Football Prescott Line now at Southern Methodist and towering lineman Collin Goetz (6-7, 280) now at Central Michigan.
Sophomore Glacier Wallington played eight of the 10 games at quarterback last season and earned all-conference honors as a freshman — a very rare feat for a ninth grader, especially in the OAA which encompasses 25 Class A and Class B schools.
“He’s going to be a good one,” barked Rowley.
AT ORTONVILLE BRANDON
Every year players graduate. Those vacancies just create new opportunity for younger players waiting in the wings.
Perhaps few teams will have more opportunities this season than at Ortonville Brandon. Brandon only brings back three regular starters this season after a large class graduated in June.
“We’re starting fresh at just about everywhere,” said Brandon coach Tim Pizzala. “That’s what happens when you graduate around 25 players. “We don’t have very many kids that played a ton, only three really.”
One of those players is senior Blake Nivelt, who was pushing his body to the limit during wind sprints while trying to set an example for younger players Monday. Nivelt was a second-team All-Flint Metro League selection last season.
“We have a lot of really good young players that are fast,” offered Nivelt. “I think it might take a couple of weeks for us to come together. But we can be good still.”
A year ago, the Blackhawks put so much focus on making the postseason and eventually squeezed in as an at-large team with a 5-4 record. In 2010, Brandon was 5-4 and just missed the cut.
“I think one of our goals will to be able to make the postseason again,” smiled Nivelt, whose team was one of six from the FML to make the playoffs last season. “We know there are a lot of good teams in the league, so we’ll have to (mature) in a hurry.”
AT AUBURN HILLS AVONDALE
Clark Clancy has been calm and relaxed the past few weeks. No more pressure on the recruiting circuit.
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound lineman recently committed to Bowling Green and is now ready to lead his Yellowjackets to the postseason for the fourth time in five years.
“It’s nice to get it out of the way. Now, I can concentrate on the season,” said Clark. “We have a lot to prove.”
Avondale made the postseason last fall, part of a special school year for the Yellowjackets. Both the boys soccer team and boys track team won state titles in 2011-12 and several other programs at the school enjoyed success.
“We hope to win our league this year and go as far as we can,” said Clancy. “We have a lot of talent.”
Two years ago Avondale coach Steve Deutsch and his staff took a gamble and had several sophomores and freshmen on the varsity starting on the offensive and defensive lines. Now, the trenches are filled with several experienced bigmen.
“We knew we could score a lot of points two years ago. We didn’t have much experience on the lines, so we kept a lot of young guys,” recalled Deutsch. “Now we have the biggest line I think we’ve had here and we have a lot of experience.”
The main question will be quarterback: Who will replace all-time leading passer Mitch Robinson, now at Northwood?
“We’re working with a couple of guys,” said Deutsch, whose team was 5-5 last season which included a first-round postseason loss to Lapeer East. “We have a lot of speed and we have the linemen that can get the job done. If our quarterbacks mature in a hurry, we could be a good team.”
After reaching the Division 1 Final Four in 2007, Troy has slowly gone downhill. Last year’s 3-6 record hopes to be the bottom of the valley for the Colts, who have been to at least the state semifinals four times in school history.
“Last year we weren’t very good,” admitted veteran Troy coach Gary Griffith, whose team started 3-2 only to lose its last four games.
The Colts have one of their biggest offensive and defensive lines under Griffith this season. Troy also has one of its fastest teams in recent years.
“We have three lineman around 290 pounds,” smiled Griffith. “We’ve had some big lines before, but I don’t think we’ve ever had three guys that big at the same time. And we do have a lot of team speed, so if the line can create some holes when we’re running the football…”
All seriousness aside, players at Troy were having fun this week at practice.
Joe Leonard, who also runs track and plays basketball, was all smiles during Tuesday’s afternoon session. In fact, the senior had on his dancing shoes, showcasing more than just his kick return moves.
“I call it ‘The Joe,’ smiled the senior running back.
AT TROY ATHENS
Monday’s first day was more like track practice at Troy Athens. There’s plenty of reason for the extra sprints.
The Red Hawks should still be very fast, but won’t have the depth at various positions this season. Being in top shape is going to matter.
“We put them through a bunch of 110s to start,” noted Athens coach Josh Heppner, who is entering his fourth season with the Red Hawks. “We don’t have all of the big bodies we did last year, so our guys are going to have to hit the holes in a hurry. But we are very fast. That should be one of our strengths. But I want our kids to be in great shape come the fourth quarter. A lot of games are won in the fourth quarter and I think in some of our losses the past couple of years, we’ve been in games at halftime or after the third quarter before the other team kind of pulled away from us.”
Heppner has helped stabilize the Red Hawks. When he took over in 2009, he was the third head coach in as many years.
“It’s easier when the players know the system and know the expectations the coaches put on them,” offered Heppner.
Joe Shields, a senior defensive back, said the Red Hawks don’t want to lose the momentum the program gained last season when they reached the postseason for the first time since 2004, also the last time Athens had a winning season until 2011.
Athens was 7-3 last year and third in the OAA Red Division. The Red Hawks lost in the first round of the Division 1 state tournament to Romeo.
“We’ve come a long ways and one of our goals is to stay up near the top of the league and make the playoffs again,” said Shields. “The seniors on this team want to keep it going.”
AT AUBURN HILLS OAKLAND CHRISTIAN
This is the fifth season for Oakland Christian, which is still trying to post its first winning season.
That could come this fall.
Oakland Christian should have 22 players on its roster — there were 14 players for much of last season — and the Lancers have three college prospects on the roster this season.
“I think we should be a lot better than last year — and we’re still very young,” said second-year Oakland Christian coach Bill Schaffer, who has coached prep football in Michigan since 1972. “In some ways, age-wise, we’re still a junior varsity team. We have a lot of juniors, sophomores and freshmen. We only have three seniors. I think next year we’ll have our first team with a lot of seniors and juniors. But I also think we can be a lot better than we have been this season.”
Oakland Christian was 2-7 last season, including a forfeit win over a school that dropped its program. Its sole win came against Dearborn Heights Star International Academy, another fledging program.
The Lancers were 2-7 in 2010, 1-8 in 2009 and 2-6 in 2008, the inaugural season, for a combined 7-28 ledger through four campaigns.
“We have 3-4 really nice players and we have a group of really hard-working kids. These guys want to be here and they are putting in the effort,” said Schaeffer. “We’re hoping that we can win a few more games this year.”
Optimism: It rings at higher volumes than at any other period of the year.
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