In his first season as Bedford's football coach, Jeff Wood guided the Kicking Mules to within inches of a 2008 Michigan Division 1 playoff berth in an overtime loss at Chelsea in the season finale.
Last year, however, there was no holding back the Mules.
Bedford (7-3, 6-0) not only reached the playoffs for the first time since 1990, but also captured a Southeastern Conference Red Division (4-0 division record) title en route.
After opening with a 30-25 nonconference loss to Carleton Airport, the Mules reeled off four straight wins, inclduing a pivotal and memorable 28-21 home win on Sept. 24 over favored Ann Arbor Pioneer that would ultimately decide the division crown.
Bedford would eventually lose to Pioneer in the first round of the playoffs, but the season was a success, and the returning members of that Mules team are hoping for as much or more this year.
Leading the way will be senior quarterback/safety Jared Kujawa, a 6-1, 195-pounder who will be a fourth-year starter on defense and in his second year directing the offense.
Wood also expects much from seniors Lee Hullibarger (6-1, 185, FB/LB), Erik Jones (6-0, 180, RB/S) and Dan Ostos (6-1, 230, C), and juniors Bryan Smith (6-1, 220, LB) and Thomas Ferry (6-2, 190, RB/S).
Running their veer "flexbone" offense and defending from a 4-3 base front, the Mules include 21 seniors on their 88-player roster, 16 of whom are returning letter winners. Five starters return on each side of the ball for Wood, who has seen great unity in preseason practice, a faster defensive group, and an overall physically stronger squad. His main concerns are inexpeience on the offensive line, and the uncertainty of a completely new corps of starting linebackers.
"Coming back from [conditioning] camp they set some lofty goals," Wood said of his team. "They're a great group of kids and they're very hard workers. We have to stay together through the ups and downs, and if we do we could win the league and make the playoffs again."
Wood sees Pioneer as a division favorite, and considers Monroe another solid title contender along with his team.
At Blissfield, it's hard to imagine now the state of the program in 2002 before Ron Estes became coach.
The first order of business was to end a 33-game losing streak, which Estes' team did in the 2002 opener and the Royals went on to post a 3-6 record.
There has not been a losing season since. Blissfield has qualified for the Division 6 playoffs in six of the last seven seasons and has won two Lenawee County Athletic Association titles.
The highlight was 2007 when the Royals finished as D-6 state runners-up.
By those standards, last year's 8-3 finish (3-2 in LCAA) was relatively uneventful, unless you consider that all three Royals losses came against state playoff teams, including the state runner-up in D-6 (Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central) and D-7 (LCAA champion Hudson). In LCAA play Blissfield was within striking range of a title, falling 35-30 to Hudson and 28-27 to Onsted.
Estes expects his Royals to be knocking on the door of a league title and playoff berth again this year despite having only three starters returning on each side of the ball.
Leading the way will be seniors Erick Schmidt (6-1, 194, QB/S), Taylor Kuhn (6-1, 200, C/DE), Eric Biesing (6-1, 215, OT/DT), Jordan Bateson (5-11, 160, SE/DB), Noah Schultz (6-1, 235, TE/DT) and Dalton Goetz (6-1, 175, RB/LB), and junior all-county player Josh Knorr (5-10, 175, TB/S), who had eight interceptions in 2009. Schmidt, a third-year starter at QB, passed for over 1,00 yards and ran for over 400 despite missing time with an injury.
The Royals have just 27 players, but 12 lettered last season. Estes has his biggest team ever, physically, and the skill personnel is solid. His top concerns are a young offensive line and an overall lack of experience.
"We're optimistic," Estes said. "We had a great camp. We have a lot of green bananas right now. We just need to ripen up. They're good kids with good attitudes, and they're just going to need a little time."
About the same Blissfield was at its low point (1998-2001), LCAA opponent Erie Mason was busy building itself into a state power.
The Eagles were on a run of six playoff appearances in seven years, culminating with 11-1 and 12-1 seasons in 2002 and 2003. The latter a state semifinal advancement under former coach John Wachsmuth.
But Erie Mason has fallen on hard times. Since the strong 2003 postseason run, the Eagles have had successive seasons of 5-4, 4-5, 2-7, 2-7, 1-8 and 0-9 last year (0-5 in LCAA). That run includes three head coaches.
Second-year coach Ken Briere hopes to turn a corner and swing the pendulum back in the other direction beginning this season, but it may be limited to small steps with proven powers like Hudson, Onsted and Blissfield ruling the LCAA.
The Eagles have just 25 players with nine returning letter winners, but seven starters are back on offense and six on defense.
Heading things up should be seniors Ducy Burwell (6-0, 185, WR/LB), Corey Lay (5-10, 155, RB/S) and Lucas Adams (6-2, 175, WR/S), and juniors Tyler Bitz (6-4, 175, QB) and Dylan Fichtner (6-0, 175, TE/LB).
Briere likes his team's speed and their potential to "get after it." But is clear to him that the group lacks overall size and experience, and must work hard to overcome those deficiencies.
"We don't offer any excuses or apologies for last season," Briere said. "It was what it was. We believe we've been doing the right things, and our intention every week will be to go out and win football games. The key for us will be to both play and practice at a high speed and a high tempo."
What's new at Whiteford?
Well, for the first time in 30 years, it's the football coach.
Matt Garno, a former assistant under Ron Estes at Blissfield, succeeds Jack Luettke, who retired after 29 years with a 156-121 record and 12 playoff appearances.
The 12th playoff appearance came last season when the Bobcats were 6-4 overall and 5-2 in the Tri-County Conference.
"I don't really feel pressure," Garno said of the transition. "I have a lot of respect for Jack and the great job he did over the years. I hope I can bring the same kind of success for the kids."
Garno's first Bobcat squad has 25 players with seven seniors and 10 returning letter winners. Four offensive and six defensive starters are back to help with the change in systems. Whiteford will operate a wing-T offense and 4-3 defense.
The top returnees include seniors Cody Donnelly (5-7, 180, RB/S), Derek Markel (5-11, 185, OL/DL), Grant Track (6-1, 225, TE/DE), Corey Roberts (5-8, 165, RB/DB) and Forrest Grosteffon (6-4, 215, QB/LB).
"They've picked up the new system very well," Garno said. "We stuck with the basics and fundamentals. The biggest thing for us is to come together as a unit. We want them to play tough and physical and, if we play as a team, everything else will come together."
Garno sees Clinton and Sand Creek as the favorites in the TCC.