BY DAN STICKRADT
ROCHESTER HILLS — Ever since Rochester Hills Lutheran Northwest ended last football season on a 1-4 skid, including losses in its last three games, Don Justice challenged his players.
What will it take in the offseason to turn the tables?
Justice, who is in his eighth season at Northwest, saw his Crusaders finish 4-5 overall last season. Although Northwest tied for second in the Michigan Independent Athletic Conference at 3-2, the Crusaders struggled in non-conference games, going 1-3.
The streak of three straight winning seasons — the best in school history — and three straight postseason berths came to an end. Justice has not stopped challenging his players since last year’s fall.
“We started out all right and tied for second with two other teams in our league, but we really struggled the second half of last season,” said Justice. “Injuries hurt us last season and by the time we got to Week 8 and Week 9, we were all banged up. So I’ve challenged the guys to put in some extra time in the offseason. We needed to be in (better shape) and stronger.”
If the players accepted the challenge and are ready for the season, then this could be a special year for the Crusaders. Northwest is considered defending MIAC champion Grosse Pointe Woods University-Liggett’s top challenger in the league with its senior-heavy team with plenty of experience.
“We have a lot of guys that played last season,” said Justice. “Having experienced players and a lot of senior leaders is crucial. I think we have all of that.”
Northwest also boasts one of Oakland County’s top signal callers in Nathan Drews (6-1, 195) and a several options both in the air and on the ground that have the potential to pile up points.
“Nathan should break a lot of (passing) records for us,” said Justice. “He’s had back-to-back years where he’s passed for more than 1,600 yards and last year he missed a game. We have a lot of good receivers and there’s no doubt that if we remain healthy, than Nathan can have a special year and we’ll be a competitive football team.”
Seniors Josh Morrison (6-0, 175), Ian Wellhousen (6-0, 185) and Matt Mischley (6-1, 175) will all be viable options for Drews to hit in the open field. Senior Ben Agosta (5-10, and junior Josh Macks (6-1, 210)160) are the top running backs.
Senior Greg Maynard (6-3, 195) and junior Nick Raby (6-0, 230) are a pair of mobile pile movers on the offensive line in charge of creating space.
Defensively, junior Drake Uplinger (5-11, 210) senior Zach Woomer (6-2, 180) and Raby will be key factors on the line. Seniors Evan Carver (6-1, 210) and junior Jake Klausmeier (6-2, 215) will head up the linebackers unit in charge of hunting down quarterbacks.
In the secondary, senior Justin Novack (5-9, 165), who will also be a wide receiver, will team up with Drews, Wellhousen and Morrison to form a solid unit.
With 24 players on varsity, the Crusaders won’t have the depth as many of the larger schools, forcing most players to play both ways.
“That’s how it always is at Northwest,” said Justice. “A few years ago, we added a JV team and that has helped us develop kids. We don’t have as many kids on varsity, but if we didn’t have a JV, then we’d probably lose some kids who didn’t get a lot of playing time.”
Since launching its program in 1987, Northwest has not had a lot of success overall, compiling just six winning seasons. In fact, other than its first postseason appearance in 1999, all of the Crusaders’ playoff seasons have come recently, including 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Northwest’s only postseason win came in 2008.
“If this is a year we could do (win some postseason games), than it would be this year. I say that because we have a lot of seniors and lot of guys that are in their second and third years as starters,” beamed Justice. “This is probably the most experienced team we’ve had since 2008. We hope we can have another season like that.”
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