Jason Mensing is 7-1 in his first year as head football coach at Whiteford.
The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
OTTAWA LAKE, Mich. -- The Whiteford football program has had many successful seasons but few championship banners to hang.
The Bobcats reached the Michigan playoffs 12 times from 1987 to 2009, all under former longtime coach Jack Luettke.
The only title during that time came in 1994, when Whiteford finished 9-2 overall, 6-1 in the Tri-County Conference, ending a long drought from the previous championships in the River Raisin Conference (1961, 1964, and 1965).
Under Jason Mensing, in his first season with the Bobcats (7-1, 5-1 TCC), Whiteford has a chance, albeit slim, to claim a title share Friday when they host Adrian Madison (3-5, 1-5).
They would need a win and an upset loss by unbeaten Clinton (8-0, 6-0) against heavy underdog Sand Creek (2-6, 2-4) to gain a tie with the Redskins.
Mensing's Bobcats have already defied the odds through their first eight games, negotiating the season while suiting up only 17 players.
Why have they been able to do so much with so little?
"Because we've got 17 pretty good football players," Mensing said.
Every player has been a starter in at least one game.
"That's the key. The guys who go on the field are talented," Mensing said. "As long as you've got 11 good ones you've got a chance, and we feel like we've got 17 good ones."
Led up front by 6-foot-2, 240-pound two-way lineman Chris Sims and fellow junior Troy Diller (tight end), the productive backfield tandem of quarterback Gabe LaRoy, fullback Brian Tabbert, and running backs Colin Lake, Tyler Lee, and Zach Perry has thrived.
Whiteford has outscored opponents 239-89, an average of 30-11 per game.
LaRoy, a senior, is 55-of-94 passing for 844 yards and six touchdowns. Lake, a junior, has rushed 98 times for a team-high 614 yards and scored nine TDs. The senior Tabbert has carried 72 times for 473 yards and five TDs. Lee, also a senior, has run 106 times for 520 yards and has 12 TDs.
Adding balance have been Perry (39 carries, 218 yards, 2 TDs) and Diller (18 catches, 378 yards, 4 TDs).
On defense, Diller leads the team in tackles with 53.5, followed by Perry (39), George Vergote (38.5), Lee (35.5), Sims (33), and Lake (32.5).
Staying healthy is crucial with roster numbers this low, and Mensing's staff works to prevent injuries by reducing risk in practice. Once or twice a week, they work more on technique in only half pads (shoulder pads and helmets) and no full contact.
"We stress technique and make sure we have efficiency," Sims said. "Coach doesn't try to kill us with conditioning, but he makes sure we're efficient."
Sims said the secret to the team's success is an intangible.
"It's like a brotherhood type thing," Sims said. "We're all in sync. We work hard in practice and we believe in our coach. He gives us confidence, and then we just do what we have to do."
"The only full-speed stuff we do is on Tuesdays," said Mensing, 34, who has been a high school head coach previously at Addison, Grayling, Owosso, and his alma mater, Tecumseh. "We may not have a whole lot of contact in practice, but we run a full tempo with five-minute segments, and we keep that going.
"One young man has dislocated his shoulder two times. But we've got pretty tough kids. That player had the second dislocation last Friday, and he's been cleared to return to practice. That tells you something about his toughness.
"These guys have a desire to play through the bumps and bruises."
The difference between the feel-good story of a long-shot title and a heart-breaking runner-up finish in the TCC may ultimately be a single miscue.
In a 26-24 loss to visiting Clinton, the Bobcats had the ball on the Redskins' 5-yard line with 1:40 left in the game. LaRoy was unable to handle a center snap cleanly, the ball came loose, and Clinton recovered.
"I fumbled the snap," said LaRoy, wearing a genuine smile that was not present on Sept. 14. "I just pulled out too early. It happens. I didn't sleep at all that night to be honest.
"Now, we want to be the first team in Whiteford history to win 10 games, and we want to go far in the playoffs. We believe in 11 as one, and we play together. Everyone we have plays a role on the team."
The Bobcats have already secured the school's 13th playoff berth, and strive to equal or break the school record for wins in a season.
No Whiteford team has ever won more than nine games, reaching that total five times (1964, 1965, 1993, 1994, and 2002). To hit 10 wins, this year's team would have to match the school's deepest playoff run. The 2000 Bobcats won two postseason games before losing in a regional final to finish 8-4.
"It was pretty tough but we've looked over it," Lake said of the Clinton loss. "We look forward to the next week, and to doing the things we need to get farther in the playoffs.
"We just keep trying to get better. I think we can get that 10th win. If everybody stays together and keeps getting better, week in and week out, we should do OK."
There are 17 Bobcats who believe there is still a lot to accomplish.
"From an execution standpoint, we feel we've gotten better each week," Mensing said. "That's every team's objective. We're real fortunate to have a little bit of depth at each position.
"We're able to rotate guys in and out, which certainly helps with the injury prevention, and with developing some depth. Our kids are tough kids. They don't want to come off the field. That mentality goes a long way."