Editor’s note: With high school football kicking off this week, our Frenzy team is previewing what local teams.
This article takes a look at the teams in the O-K Green conference: Holland, Zeeland East, Zeeland West, Unity Christian, Hamilton, Holland Christian and Byron Center.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Nine wins and an O-K Green conference title last season are all things of the past to Zeeland East head coach Derek Pennington.
He and the defending league champs try to think about the playoffs only when that time comes.
“We’re just focused on game one, we’re not thinking ahead (to a state title),” Pennington said. “We don’t think like that, I’m worried about practice today and thinking about the things we need to get better that. …The media and fans think about stuff like that. For us, as coaches, you got to worry about what you are doing today.”
Pennington says the team uses UCLA head coach Chip Kelly’s saying “Winning Today.” It is on a board the players see when they come out of the locker room.
“We want to win today. We’re not talking about anything down the road,” Pennington said.
Right behind Zeeland East a season ago was Holland, which is on the upswing. Last year, the Dutch made the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Head coach Andrew Pratley said the team needs to clean up the inconsistencies from a year ago to compete for a conference title.
“We have to take the next step in terms of consistency each play and each week,” Pratley said. “We need to play our brand of football for four quarters each week.”
Pennington said the conference is very tough because of all of its playoff teams from a season ago.
“There’s a ton of really strong teams and it will be a challenge every week,” Pennington said. “We just try to get better every week with the difficult competition.
“All our league is tough, but Zeeland East and Zeeland West would probably be considered the favorites,” he added.
ZEELAND EAST CHIX
After a perfect regular season, the Chix fell to their neighbor rival Zeeland West in the postseason. Now the team will have to find a way to replace some of the players they graduated.
“We lost a whole bunch off of a really good offense last year,” Pennington said. “We are just trying to get good at something before the first game. We need our three returning guys on offense to really step up and be leaders.”
Among those three returning starters for the 2017 squad is four-year varsity tailback Josh Fusco, who carried the majority of rushes a season ago. Offensive and defensive lineman and All-State Division I recruit Adam Berghorst will hold up the interior before heading to Michigan State next fall. Fellow All-State Division I recruit tight end and linebacker Boone Bonnema was also a player Pennington tapped to carry weight.
Pennington said the team is trying to learn the basics with so many new faces.
“Man, we are just trying to learn the plays,” he said. “We want to get better each day and build a good culture with great kids. Football is a life changing experience for them, we feel if we do the right things then (wins) will happen.”
A challenging nonconference schedule awaits the Chix as they will start at Grand Valley State against East Grand Rapids, then head home for Detroit Douglass, which lost every game in 2017 and 17 of its last 22 contests.
In Week 3, the Chix travel to Grand Rapids Catholic Central to face the back-to-back Division 4 champions.
Even with a first-round loss to Muskegon in the playoffs last season, there was plenty to be happy about with a playoff run for the Holland Dutch. If they manage to get back to the postseason, it would be the first-ever back-to-back playoff berths in school history.
“That is our ultimate goal, to make a playoff run,” Pratley said. “The first (game) at this point is the only one that matters.”
Senior Ben Leeka returns at quarterback and will look to stay upright behind an offensive line that returns Jesus Martinez and Michael Landin. Donovan Webb returns to lead the running game for the second consecutive season.
Some newcomers Pratley mentioned was Zach Jones, Peyton Woudenberg and Nelson Figueroa who could make a difference immediately.
All three opponents for Holland in the nonconference slate missed the playoffs in 2017. The Dutch start at home versus Wyoming, then go on the road for Kalamazoo Loy Norrix and end at home versus East Kentwood. Kentwood did finish with a 6-3 record a season ago. Both Loy Norrix and Wyoming had had losing campaigns.
HOLLAND CHRISTIAN MAROONS
It’s been a long five years without a playoff game for Holland Christian head coach Chris Kuipers and the Maroons. Last year, the team stumbled to a 3-6 finish with just one league win.
This season, the Maroons will lean on the passing game, which returns plenty of depth. Quarterback Wilson Wirebaugh is back with his favorite targets, Will Van Wieren and Brady Howe. They return senior defensive tackle Dan Dekam on defense and the offensive line returns most all starters from a season ago.
To open nonconference, the Maroons will start at Coopersville, then travel to Forest Hills Northern and finish at home against Spring Lake. Spring Lake didn’t earn a victory in 2017 and Forest Hills Northern won three games. The lone playoff contender is Coopersville, which made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2008.
ZEELAND WEST DUX
Playing the spoiler role to Zeeland East in the playoffs was the highlight of the Zeeland West Dux campaign a year ago. Head coach John Shillito’s group lost in the second round of the postseason to eventual state champion Muskegon.
The offensive line plans to lead this group as they return tackle Zane Brooks and guard Ross Gilbert. Senior tight ends Austin Brower and Zeke Buter plan to be large in the pass and blocking game.
They will be making running lanes for senior tailback Chase Peddie, who ran for over 1,000 yards last season. On defense Peddie is a linebacker and is paired with All-State linebacker Ross Bolman.
On top of an already difficult conference schedule, the nonconference presents challenges of its own. The Dux’s open with two road games against Columbus Northland and Grand Rapids Christian followed by a home game versus Lowell. Columbus Northland won seven games last season. Grand Rapids Christian is a playoff team from the O-K Gold and the Red Arrows of Lowell have been a state powerhouse for the past decade and then some.
UNITY CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS
For Unity Christian head coach Craig Tibble, the playoffs are starting to become a regular event. The Crusaders have reached the postseason the past four years.
However, they have a lot to replace and it starts with quarterback. Junior Issac Teslaa is the predicted frontrunner for the job. Behind him will be Max Buikema coming out of the backfield. He will also play defensive end, along with linebackers T.J. VanKoevering and Caleb Heyboer who look to lead a defense full of youth.
Unity has a nonconference set of games that present a challenge starting with a road trips to Allendale and Godwin Heights, rounded out by a home game against South Christian. The Crusaders have opened their season against Allendale for 15 consecutive season, currently holding a 8-6 record in that time. South Christian is a team who won six games a year ago.
BYRON CENTER BULLDOGS
Byron Center head coach Marc Cisco and the Bulldogs missed the playoffs for the first time since 2012 a season ago. They posted a 4-5 overall record and three of those losses came by eight points or less.
In order to win those close games, the Bulldogs will look to a pair of third year starters: offensive lineman Blake Pekel and running/defensive back Marcus Cisco. Senior Keegan Deppe also should play a big role in the trenches.
Home games against Forest Hills Northern and Middleville open the nonconference contests for Byron Center, capped off by a road trip to Comstock Park. This is the sixth straight campaign where the Bulldogs open with Forest Hills Northern and Middleville, who they have swept the past two seasons. Comstock Park made the playoffs last season and finished with seven wins.
Winning more games will be the goal for the Hamilton Hawkeyes after earning just one last season. Head coach Chris Myers and his team salvaged a win against Sparta in the final week of the season.
This team’s strengths start on the defensive side of the ball where they return seven starters. Jack Doeden and Brandon Genzink return as seniors to lead the defensive backfield. The defense allowed 44.1 points per game in 2017, so the secondary experience will look to slow that trait down.
Doeden also leads the wideouts and will be quarterback Marcus McLlwain’s top target in the passing game as the new man calling signals for the offense.
The nonconference portion of the season for the Hawkeyes starts with a road game against Godwin Heights and is followed with back-to-back home games against Coopersville and Wayland. Coopersville and Godwin Heights both made the playoffs last season. Hamilton and Wayland are former O-K Gold rivals that will meet in Week 8, Hamilton won the previous two meetings ending in 2007.