Wednesday, August 27, 2008 GEOFF MOTTTHE SAGINAW NEWS
A high school football coach's great challenge is preparing his players for success against new opponents every Friday night.
In the Tri-Valley Conference West Division, this detail can prove especially tough.
Whether it's Merrill's pass-happy spread offense, Ithaca's unbalanced spread or Michigan Lutheran Seminary's veer option attack, defensive coordinators find themselves scrambling week to week.
''Every week there is something new to prepare for in this league,'' Merrill coach John Streeter said. ''That makes coaching fun ... and challenging.''
All teams will have plenty of new challenges to consider in an eight-school league that sent three teams to the playoffs and a fourth -- Michigan Lutheran Seminary -- that missed by one win.
St. Charles returns as defending league champions after finishing the regular season undefeated. In the last year under head coach Bob Welzein, the Bulldogs knocked off Marlette in the first round before losing 24-18 in overtime in the second round to eventual state champion Nouvel Catholic Central.
With offensive coordinator Brady Lake taking over as head coach, the Bulldogs unveil one of the oldest offensive game plans around -- the Single wing. The set, which was created by legendary coach Glenn ''Pop'' Warner in the early 1900s, is used by a few teams, including a Menominee team that has won two straight state titles. The offensive set does not feature a quarterback and direct snaps can go to one of three running backs. Passing is minimal while fakes, dives and sweeps are plenty. The unbalanced look is used to trick defenses, not overpower them. It's also the precursor of the spread offense.
''We were pretty unique with the power T and now we're changing,'' said Lake, who spent the last seven years in St. Charles as an assistant coach. ''I took over the offense for (Welzein) two years ago and after that first year I saw Menominee run it, I wanted it. But I didn't want to make changes two years in a row. I wanted another year to investigate. When I got the job to take over, I figured we might as well do it now.''
Lake and his assistant coaches made a pilgrimage to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where more than 150 coaches around the country gathered to share information. His staff rented a van with New Haven coach Todd Winters' staff and made the trek.
''It was a nine-hour trip and well worth it,'' Lake said. ''I made some friends and now we're e-mailing information with coaches from around the country. It's like a brotherhood of single wing coaches who appreciate the offense so much that they pass all of their information on.''
With returning running backs Marshall Davenport, Travis Crane and Dugan Roosa, Lake is eager to watch the offense in action.
''I like running the football,'' Lake said. ''I can tailor the system to these kids and we have to work hard in the weight room. I don't trust 16- and 17-year-old kids chucking the ball down field.''
Merrill has trusted 6-foot-6, 205-pound quarterback Jason Pratt to chuck the ball in its spread offense since he took over the starting job as a freshman. Entering his senior season with running back Ricky Chapin and receivers Travis Williams and Aaron Foor, the Vandals' offensive attack is finely tuned and are the early favorites to win.
''(Pratt) ran for 1,200 yards and our running back went over 1,000,'' Streeter said. ''We want to stay balanced, keep it at 50-50. The temptation is to throw a lot with Pratt, but we emphasize the run and defense.''
The Vandals will play with heavy hearts. Mike Prosser, one of their top receivers, died unexpectedly at his family's home on July 31. The 16-year-old led the team in receptions (64) and touchdowns (14).
''He was a special athlete and a special kid,'' said Streeter, whose team advanced to the state quarterfinals last season before losing 35-32 to Harbor Beach. ''That's a huge hole to fill. We'll need a couple guys to step up there.''
Ithaca, which lost in the first round of the playoffs last season, has run its unbalanced spread for 10 years. Like youth programs in St. Charles and Merrill, the consistency with the youth program and the high school's coaching staff makes the varsity transition on the offensive side of the ball smooth.
''We have great consistency in our coaching staff and youth program and our kids really understand what they're doing by the time they get up here,'' Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said. ''We run the spread here, but we have a lot of plays that come from the single wing. With Merrill and St. Charles this year, everything should be interesting in the league.''
Seminary has run the veer option offense since former coach Loren Dietrich installed it 30 years ago. Every coach has run the system since then, including former player and current coach Larry Seafert.
''Our program is very familiar with it,'' Seafert said. ''We're small and not that fast. We have to have something that levels the playing field. We're not going to push over anybody and this is a nice offense to keep teams unbalanced. You have to respect three different people.''
With high soccer participation among Lutheran middle schools, Valley Lutheran coach Eric Smith doesn't have the luxury of players understanding his double tight end, split back set when they arrive as freshmen. Smith, entering his fourth year, expects many offenses around the state to change after University of Michigan hired new coach Rich Rodriguez and his version of the spread offense.
''The conferences are only going to get more diverse with what's happening at Michigan,'' Smith said. ''With that running game out of the spread offense and the style he brings, you'll see quite a changeover.''
Change is back at Carrollton as Greg Wasmer takes over the program for the first time. A long-time assistant at Bay City John Glenn, Wasmer brings in the power and spread versions of the I-formation.
St. Louis runs the option out of the I-formation and with many returning lettermen, expectations are high for the Sharks and fifth-year coach Alan Esterline.
Breckenridge runs the Power-T offense and it helps slow down the high-paced offenses of its league foes.
''We like to eat up the clock and stretch the field,'' Breckenridge coach Mark Gregory said. ''We played Merrill tough and lost, but we gave up the fewest points against them. It's always a war when we face them.''
Geoff Mott is a sports writer for The Saginaw News.