OTTAWA LAKE, Mich. — When they were in eighth grade, Whiteford’s five current senior football players had to seek out a youth league elsewhere because they didn’t have enough players to form a school team.
Four years later, the Class of 2014, with help from their younger teammates, has a chance to put Whiteford in the Michigan state semifinals for the first time.
The 2000 team is the only other team in school history to reach the regional final.
The Bobcats (9-2), who have tied a school record for the most victories, play at perennial power New Lothrup (10-0) in a Division 8 regional final on Friday at 7 p.m.
It will be a tall order facing the state’s fourth-ranked team, which is riding a 14-year streak of playoff appearances. The Hornets won the 2006 state title.
But second-year coach Jason Mensing’s Bobcats hope to be up for the challenge with their potent offense, which has outscored its last four foes 216-38. Included in that run were 59-6 and 61-20 playoff wins against Sterling Heights Parkway Christian and Detroit Allen, respectively.
“It’s great to see a group of kids who weren’t able to play middle school football together be able to come up as high school varsity players, tie a school record for wins, and have great success,” Mensing said. “It says a lot, not only for their athleticism, but their mental passion for the game.”
If the Bobcats have a true leader it would be 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior Chris Sims, a starter at offensive tackle and defensive end.
“We call him the ambassador,” Mensing said. “He’s a guy who wants everyone to feel welcome and happy. For any team, that’s a huge characteristic to have. Beyond his physical talents, his emotional leadership is a special thing.
“On the field, he has size and strength and speed, and he’s a difference maker. He is typically the most dominant player on the field on both sides of the ball each week.”
Sims said the seniors have tried to establish a team-first attitude, and they are hoping to plant a seed for future Bobcat teams.
“We try to stay selfless and make that a major goal,” Sims said. “We make it a point not to think about ourselves, but about the guy next to us. Since there’s only five seniors, we try to have a bond with everybody.
“I hope this is just the beginning. We’d love to be able to start a roll for them, where we get so far this year, and then they try to match it or do better the next couple years.”
The other seniors, who are also two-way starters, each joined Sims as All-Tri-County Conference first-team selections.
Colin Lake, a wingback-cornerback, leads Whiteford in rushing with 686 yards on 109 carries. In basketball, the talented senior averaged 26 points per game last season and was Class C all-state first team.
“We’re just leading by example for the younger kids,” Lake said. “They all look up to us. We’ve really grown together as a unit, and nobody’s selfish. No matter who scores a touchdown, we’re all there for them. Everybody just wants to win.”
Lake has caught nine passes for 241 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He has three interceptions.
Senior wingback-safety Zach Perry has 89 rushes for 618 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“We practice hard, we don’t take any plays off, and we make sure we’re pushing each other in practice to be the best we can be,” Perry said of having success despite playing the regular season with only 20 players.
“I think it’s great what we’ve done so far, and I hope we come out with a victory on Friday.”
Rounding out the Bobcats’ balanced backfield rotation are sophomores Josh Beck (105 carries, 603 yards, 3 TDs) and Cody Kiefer (83 carries, 474 yards, 9 TDs).
John Reditt, a junior quarterback, is 50-of-88 passing for 940 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Whiteford’s top receiver is senior Troy Diller (24 catches, 417 yards, 4 TDs), who doubles at linebacker (56 tackles, 4 interceptions). The fifth senior two-way starter is Joel Holtz, a guard and defensive tackle.
Using their run-heavy double-wing offense, the Bobcats have outscored opponents 413-156 — a school record for points — and outgained them 341-248 yards per game. Whiteford’s only losses came in TCC play against champion Clinton (33-8) and Whitmore Lake (20-14).
The Bobcats’ defense is led by Diller in tackles, while Sims has 17 tackles for a loss and nine sacks, and Reditt has five interceptions.
“Offensively, we’ve been pretty efficient all year as far as taking care of the ball and making good production on each possession,” Mensing said. “Defensively, although we don’t have any blazers on this team, or anyone that’s super fast, our overall team speed is pretty good. Our 11 guys all get to the ball and run pretty well.”
If the Bobcats are to avoid a season-ending third loss, they will need their offensive momentum to continue and find a way to stop the Hornets and Central Michigan-bound receiver Amari Coleman.
New Lothrup, which has outscored its opponents 504-86, is also a run-heavy squad, accounting for 309 of its 375 average offensive yards per game on the ground.
Coleman (14 catches, 226 yards, 4 TDs) has rushed for 869 yards on just 46 carries (18.9 average) and added 14 TDs. He has also returned five punts and one kickoff for six special-teams touchdowns.
Hornets quarterback Ben Muron is 36-of-54 passing for 629 yards and 14 TDs, and he has rushed 89 times for 759 yards and 8 TDs
The Hornet defense — led by lineman Luke Harris (44 tackles) and linebackers Quentin Taylor (33 tackles, 9 tackles for loss) and Taylor Krupp (4 INTs) — yields 173 yards per contest.
New Lothrup is 17-12 all-time in postseason play, while Whiteford enters at 6-13 playing in its 14th state playoffs.
“A big key for us at this point is that we have to be able to play with efficiency,” Mensing said. “We want to play in a game that has six to eight possessions, and we want to be efficient and score in as many as we can. “We need to get three or four key stops in the game.”