Gielczyk: Onekama Embarks on 8-Man Game
Pressure? Oh, yeah, it’s on. And new Onekama football coach John Neph admits that he’s feeling it as the Portagers prepare to close their second week of practice with a scrimmage at Brethren on Friday morning.
Neph is just the third coach in the football team’s history, which dates back to the early 1960’s beginning with Jim Taylor, a local legend who strung together a cluster of league championships in his time walking the sidelines.
Taylor coached the Portagers to the playoffs twice, the last time in 1987 before retiring. Jim Hunter took over and guided Onekama back to the playoffs in 1994. Onekama qualified again in 1999, made back-to-back appearances in 2006 and 2007, as well as three straight years including 2016.
Although he understands the tradition of the Onekama football program, and that the community’s expectations are for it to continue uninterrupted, Neph couldn’t resist putting his hat in the ring.
Being a head football coach has been a life-long dream for Neph, the Portagers’ baseball coach since 2005, and when the opportunity for that to happen when Hunter retired last year Neph jumped at the chance.
“I talked with my family, and really wanted to be the football coach,” said Neph before Wednesday afternoon’s practice. “The consideration was being the head baseball coach here as well, and then adding the head football coach (position), was the amount of time that would be required.
“So, I wanted to make sure the family was okay with that. Just really excited now to be leading the troops here.”
Neph isn’t a newcomer to the Onekama football program, having been an assistant with the junior varsity and varsity from the time he started as the baseball coach. But, this is his first time as a head coach running the program.
The Portagers will be making their debut in 8-man football, though, and that’s something new that will take some getting used to for the Onekama fans, who’ve grown up on the 11-man game.
Once his appointment as the head football coach was official, Neph and his assistants piled into a car and made a quick road trip to visit a school that has been running an 8-man program for a number of years, to see what they could learn.
“We learned what they did, primarily defensively,” said Neph. “We learned some concepts and things from them. We’re not exactly what they do. So, we got that information and we came back, and started coaches’ meetings two or three times a month.
“We are very anxious to do the best we can for the guys that are here. We’ve changed the offense here to match what we think our talent is. It’s been a little rough transition, but we’re getting it. The players here are really what it’s all about, and they’ve had a great attitude about the switch.”
Neph is looking to have about 30 players in the program total, with a great senior class expected to lead the team. The Portagers have a lot of experience at the skill positions, and a solid group of linemen.
One of those senior leaders, Jeremiah Torrey, is taking a lot of reps at quarterback with hopes of getting the start for the season opener, and like everyone else has been trying to get used to the new offense.
“It’s been so far with coach,” Torrey said. “Everybody’s training together. I think all of us seniors try not to push just the freshmen and sophomores, but everyone on the team. I’m very impressed with what we can do.”
Another senior, Jacob Mauntler is also working out at quarterback, but also has been taking some snaps at running back and playing linebacker on defense.
With so much more open field in 8-man football, Mauntler recognizes the need to make more open field tackles.
“I feel that’s going to be the biggest key on defense,” Mauntler says. “It has been weird and different, but I feel like we’re doing a good job with it as a team. Everybody’s starting to come together, and things are looking good for us.”
Nick Falk is a senior center/defensive tackle, and sees some big challenges ahead with only three offensive linemen in the 8-man game.
“It’s a lot more people to cover,” Falk acknowledged. “There’s three defensive linebackers and three defensive tackles we all have to take care of. So, it’s going to be a lot harder. We have to trust the running backs a lot more with their skills.”
The 8-man game is a lot faster, senior running back/defensive end Grant Johnson said.
“After we knocked off the tackles, you realize there’s not so much of a big wall right in front of you,” Johnson said. “It’s more people getting where they have to be, and doing their job. That’s the most important part of 8-man football.
“We’ll do a lot of that (catching passes coming out of the backfield). After we switched our offense to the veer to what we’re running now, that makes us running backs eligible. At least, coach is more optimistic about having us run it out.
“I notice that everything’s quicker. After the snap of the ball, you’ve got to be ready for those jet sweeps (defensively). There’s a lot of room to run. As a defensive end, there’s a lot of containment, a lot of not getting beat to the outside.”
Having made the playoffs three years in a row, it’s only natural for the fans to expect more of the same this season.
And, it could happen. The Portagers could make it four straight playoff appearances.
But, it’s not just about winning, although that’s important. Neph acknowledges the pressure is also on to run a program that lives up to the tradition of working hard, playing the game the right way and with the kind of sportsmanship Onekama is known for.
Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelance sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News.