Gielczyk: Manistee Looks For Strong Start, Better Finish in 2018

Last season was a forgettable one for the Manistee football team.

First, the Chippewas squandered a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter in a disappointing 36-32 non-conference loss to McBain at home.

Then the Chippewas finished the season with a three-game losing streak, being outscored 138-58 and ended with a 2-7 record in former assistant Troy Bytwork’s first year as the head coach.

But while the natural inclination would be for the Chippewas to put that experience in their rear view mirror and look ahead, it might also be wise to remember it as well. After all Manistee was a young club and there was a steeper learning curve than they expected.

Everyone hoped for better results. The Chippewas were looking to qualify for the MHSAA Division 6 playoffs after missing the post-season after going 5-4 in 2016. Manistee qualified for the playoffs in 2015, losing to Reed City 50-27 in the first round.

And there was reason for optimism, too, with the Chippewas bringing up several players from a crack junior varsity squad that went 8-1, including quarterback Trevor Johns who was taking over for the graduated Tai Allen. Allen is now playing at Michigan Tech.

Manistee got the season off to an 0-2 start with a 36-26 loss to Hopkins before defeating traditional rival, and Lakes 8 Activities Conference foe Ludington in the season’s third week, 42-28.

Even that inspirational win did not turn things around for the Chippewas, who proceeded to lose their next two games and entered week six needing to win out just to finish with a winning record.

Qualifying for the playoffs at 5-4 was more than a long shot.

As much as one would prefer to burn the game films from last year, Bytwork and his staff have been poring over them the last few weeks looking for ways to fix what was broken last year and make the necessary repairs.

It’s what coaches do, as unpleasant as the task might be. Even after winning seasons and playoff appearances, coaches still go over game film to identify the flaws in their performances, looking for ways to build a better mouse trap.

“We got to get our mojo back a little bit, get out of the gate a little quicker,” Bytwork said on the eve of the Chippewas’ first 7-on-7 scrimmage Monday afternoon. “Last year we lost to McBain in game one, we led that game up until the end and I think we lost a little bit of our confidence.

“Then we kind of had a similar game in game two. We beat Ludington in week three so I think some of that confidence came back. But, I think that loss to McBain kind of got us off on the wrong foot a little bit.

“Especially with a young team last year. We were predominantly juniors, sophomores and a freshman. It’s obviously an old adage to say the least, but it’ll help us if we can get out of the gate a little quicker this year and get some of that swagger back.”

Bytwork added he thinks that taking a couple of late losses to start the season had the Chippewas questioning themselves a little bit, and despite the win over Ludington they seemed a little unsure of themselves the rest of the season.

With the start of practice now less than a month away, the Chippewas are starting their summer schedule. They’ve been in the weight room lifting ever since school let out.

For the younger players, they know what to expect now after their baptism by fire last fall. Another old adage says there is no substitute for experience, and the Chippewas will have a seasoned group this year.

Two of the offense’s biggest contributors, Johns and running back Brysen Jensen who earned First Team All-League honors despite the Chippewas record, will be back.

Also returning are Jack Sandstedt, Mayan Liston, Connor Barke, Logan Buren and Brady Reid who all were selected to the Second Team.

Jensen led the Chippewas with 860 yards rushing and scored nine touchdowns. Johns is lethal either throwing or running, accounting for 20 touchdowns … nine passing and 11 rushing. He passed for 501 yards and ran for 702 yards.

“I thought Trevor did a good job as far as his decision making with our Veer,” added Bytwork. “As a young quarterback he certainly had some mistakes here and there. But, I thought he came away from it (last season) with a lot.

“He’s going too be a pretty confident character this year. He won a state championship in power lifting as an individual. We threw a ton in the off-season because obviously running the ball is a strong suit, but we had to get him to a point where we were more effective in the air.

“We spent a lot of time this off-season working on his arm strength. I expect a lot out of him this year. If we’re going to have a great year a lot is going to dependent upon where he takes us. I have full confidence he’s going to lead us in the right direction.”

One of Johns’ primary targets will be Sandstedt, who is going to be a third-year varsity player and was part of the Chippewas’ playoff team two years ago. Buren is a returning starter from the receiving corps.

Allen’s younger brother Trace Allen was hurt in the Ludington game and essentially missed the bulk of the season last year, but is healthy now and expected to be one of the leading receivers.

Manistee’s defense is bolstered with the return of linebackers Buren, who had eight tackles for loss last season, and Connor Barke who had 41 tackles and six for loss. Returning defensive lineman Reid had 29 tackles.

Johns was an All-State free safety last year and is an integral part of the defense, especially with what the Chippewas do.

“Between him, and Jensen and Barke at inside linebackers, we should be pretty stout there,” says Bytwork. “Defensively we’ve got to be more consistent as far as our stops are concerned.

“That was something we struggled with last year. But I think we’ll be in a lot better sharp. We’ve got some speed. Especially with Logan Buren coming back as an outside linebacker. That’s going to be a nice fit as well.”

Jensen conceivably could have rushed for 1,000 yards or more, but got worn down when his backup, Trace Allen went down. Bytwork didn’t have the luxury of taking him out of games in spots to give him a rest.

All the offensive linemen are going to be back, and are two and three year starters up front. Barke and Brayden Mikula have been working hard to get bigger and stronger in the off-season.

“We got to get rolling right out of the gate and get some wins under our belt and I think we’ll be in pretty good shape,” Bytwork said. “This group excites me, especially from an offensive perspective.”

Manistee is hoping for a quicker start, and a better finish this year.

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. Gielczyk can be reached at ggielczyk@jackpine.net for story ideas. 

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