Football season kicks off Thursday with pair of new faces

Published 10:36 pm Wednesday, August 25, 2021

NILES — There will be a couple of new faces patrolling the sidelines as the 2021 high school football season kicks off with a full slate of games Thursday.

At Niles, former Three Rivers Coach Scot Shaw takes over for Joe Sassano, who resigned following last season. At Dowagiac, former Chieftain player Duane Davis takes over for Randy Brooks, who stepped down after two seasons.

Sturgis at Niles
Niles is making its debut in the Wolverine Conference Thursday night after spending last season in the BCS Athletic Conference. Before that, the Vikings were a mainstay in the SMAC West Division.

Niles is looking for Shaw to turn around the Vikings’ fortunes on the gridiron as it has not had a winning season since 2014 when it went 5-4.

Shaw, who led Three Rivers to the 2003 Division 4 championship, hopes to learn a lot about his team in the season opener. The Vikings are no strangers to playing Sturgis, which was a member of the SMAC before joining the Wolverine Conference in 2014.

Thursday’s game is the first meeting between the two schools since the Trojans edged the Vikings 34-33 in 2013.

“We are looking to see where we are,” Shaw said. “What we have learned and how well we can execute those things. We have a pretty good idea about personnel, but we want to see how we react under fire. Hopefully, we have prepared them for what they will see.”

Sturgis is also looking to turn around its fortunes. The Trojans have not had a winning season since they were 6-4 in 2015. Sturgis is playing its second season under former standout Chance Stewart.

“Sturgis is athletic, big in places and quick in places,” Shaw said. “They are well-coached, and they play hard.”

Weather could play a factor in this week’s opening games as high heat and humidity are forecast for Thursday night. Luckily for area teams, they have been practicing in similar conditions since the opening day of practice.

Shaw feels that the coaching staff and players have used their time well.

“I think we have used our time efficiently and have organized our priorities as far as what we will be both offensively and defensively,” he said. “Usually, in early season games, it’s the heat and turnovers, whoever can overcome turnovers by not providing any and getting some takeaways, will be at an advantage, and whoever can deal effectively with the heat.”

Shaw also said that controlling emotions will be important, as they differ in games than in practice.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. The game can be seen on the NFHS Network.

Dowagiac vs. Vicksburg at St. Joseph

Due to construction of Vicksburg’s new track and football field, the game has been moved to St. Joseph’s Dickenson Stadium Thursday night.

According to Bulldog Athletic Director Mike Roy, the new football surface has been completed, but the track around the field is not.

The Chieftains were 9-8 under Brooks in his two years. Dowagiac lost in the opening round of the playoffs both years.

Davis, who has been coaching football at various levels, including varsity assistant coach, for 14 years, has been charged with turning around the program, which has not won more than six games since 2016 when it went 7-4 and lost in the Division 5 district championship game to Berrien Springs.

Dowagiac is 8-6 against the Bulldogs since joining the Wolverine Conference in 2006. Vicksburg has won four of the last six meeting, including last year’s 33-0 win over the Chieftains.
Davis is ready to see what his team is made of.

“I am looking forward to watching how we handle adversity,” he said. “We are young, and I hope that our senior leaders can stand up to the task. The seniors have to show the underclassmen the right way to play this game and if they can do that then I do believe we can put something together.”

Preseason camp did not go exactly as planned for the Chieftains, but Davis feels his team got a lot out of it.

“Our two-a-days were tough and filled with adversity and conflict, but we got through those,” he said. “We also went into the scrimmage and fought every snap. I believe that everything we do from here on out is really how much you want to change and get better.”

Vicksburg, despite losing its outstanding quarterback, Jacob Conklin, will still have more veterans than Dowagiac has on its roster.

“They will have more upperclassmen than we will have and that is a huge factor for a varsity football team,” Davis said. “Being disciplined, focused on task at hand, and finding the Dowagiac fight and toughness again because that has been missing lately.”

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

Cassopolis at Schoolcraft

The Cassopolis Rangers have beefed up their schedule in hopes of being better prepared for the postseason.

The Rangers will open the 2021 season on the road at Schoolcraft, which, like Cassopolis, is a perennial playoff power. The two teams were supposed to meet last year, but COVID-19 wiped out the first three weeks of the regular season.

Cassopolis and Schoolcraft last met on the gridiron in 2011 when the Eagles defeated the Rangers 34-13 in the Division 6 playoffs. Schoolcraft has won the last five meetings between the two schools dating back to 1990.

Second-year Coach Steve Green is hoping a complete summer program and fall camp will help the Rangers against the tougher schedule. Numbers are not on Cassopolis’ side, however, as the

Rangers had to drop their JV program in order to have enough players to field a varsity squad.

“I never feel like we’ve had enough practice before our first game. There are always going to be questions unanswered until the kids see some game action,” he said. “The biggest challenge from our opponent will be their size and experience, our team is putting a lot of new faces on the field for the first time in varsity atmosphere.”

Building team chemistry quickly will be a main focus for Cassopolis early in the season. Green said the team has seven new starters on offense and defense.

The keys to the game are simple, Green said.

“No turnovers and ball control will never a key factor for us,” he said. “They have an explosive offense, so we need to try to keep them off the field.”
Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Edwardsburg at Montague

The Eddies face a huge road challenge to kick off the 2021 season.

Edwardsburg will travel to Montague, which is the defending Division 6 state champions. Montague lost in the semifinals in 2019 and the state title game in 2018.

This will be the first meeting between the two perennial state playoff teams.

The Eddies are coming off a 9-1 campaign in 2020, which ended in the Division 4 state semifinals with a 28-26 loss to Cadillac.

Veteran Edwardsburg Coach Kevin Bartz has some holes to fill, but believes his team is up to the challenge.

“I am looking for us to improve on our execution from the scrimmage,” he said. “We need to continue each week to get better at all the little things such as technique, footwork and confidence in assignments. Preparing for one team and one offensive scheme should help our focus and hopefully cut down our errors.”

Preseason camp went well for the Eddies, according to Bartz.

“We have had a very good couple of weeks of practice and stayed relatively injury free,” he said. “Even though we are early in the season, we have been able to implement the majority of our offensive plays and defensive schemes. That gives us a lot of options for preparing for our opening game.”

Bartz, his staff and the players are well aware of the challenge that awaits them Thursday night.

“Montague is coming off of a state championship in Division 6,” he said. “Many of their skilled players from the 2020 team return. We will have to stop a very proficient offense that runs and throws equally well. Playing on the road against a confident Montague team I think it is going to be important that we get off to a strong start. We need to score early and be able to shut down their running game. If we allow them to remain two-dimensional, running and throwing the ball we could have some struggles defensively against them.”

Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.

Centreville at Brandywine

The Bobcats face one of their toughest opening games in school history Thursday night as they host Division 8 defending state champion Centreville.

The Bulldogs, under then first-year Head Coach Jerry Schultz, who was a defensive coordinator at Niles before heading to Centreville, went 10-0 last season and defeated Ubly 22-0 in the championship game.

Centreville hangs its hat on defense. The Bulldogs allowed just 2.9 points per game last season. The lone game in which Centreville game up more than a touchdown was in the district championship game against two-time defending state champion Reading, which it won 32-14.

The Bobcats are coming off a 4-4 season after going 9-1 in 2019. Brandywine did win the school’s first-ever playoff game last season as it defeated Comstock 44-7 in the Division 6 pre-district round.

Veteran Coach Mike Nate has some key holes to fill in order for the Bobcats to return to their form from 2019.

Gone are starting quarterback Gabe Gouin, who passed for 628 yards and ran for another 593 yards. Also gone are tight end Cam Barrier (17 catches for 282 yards) and running back Jakob Luczkowski (112 yards).

Fortunately for the Bobcats, the cupboard is hardly bare, although it did suffer a setback with the loss of Brock Dye to a season-ending injury.

Returning for Brandywine are running backs Ivory McCullough (339 yards rushing, 5 touchdowns) and Michael Palmer (245 yards, 5 touchdowns). The Bobcats have several options to choose from at quarterback as Blake Krueger, Conner Dye and Kevin Roberts Jr. are all listed at that position.

One thing that could hurt the Bobcats against a tougher schedule is a lack of players.

“Our numbers are down and COVID hasn’t helped,” he said. “We know our opponents are good, but I think we’ll be competitive.”

Kickoff at Selge Field will be at 7 p.m.

Buchanan at Hartfor

The Bucks’ season opener at Hartford was canceled on Tuesday due to a lack of available players for the Indians, according to Buchanan Athletic Director Mark Frey.

“We are disappointed that we do not get to play, but this gives us another opportunity to practice and prepare for our game with Niles,” he said.