Gielczyk: Elk Rapids Rolling, But Staying the Course
Elk Rapids’ football team went from a 2-7 season two years ago to a 7-2 campaign and a berth in the MHSAA playoffs last year, and aside from their quarterback return all of their skill position players.
But the Elks graduated all but one of their starters on the offensive line, and their youth up front was a major question mark throughout the pre-season and when fall practice started in August.
The Elks understood that any hope they had of making another run to the playoffs centered on the performance of their linemen who are responsible for blocking and opening up holes for the running backs, as well as pass protection.
Good coaching and the players’ determination and desire appear to have taken care of those concerns as the Elks opened the season 3-0 for the first time in eight years. They can secure an automatic playoff berth with three more wins to get to six.
If they can continue at their current pace the Elks might be awarded a home playoff game. Perhaps two. The Elks finished 5-2 in the Northern Michigan Football League’s Leaders Division last year and earned a home playoff game.
Elk Rapids lost, 30-0 to Ispheming Westwood in the first round of the Division 7 playoffs last year. It was their first playoff berth since 2014, when they qualified in Division 6 and were defeated, 35-14 by Boyne City.
The Elks also qualified for the Division 6 playoffs in 2013 and lost to Boyne City, 27-6. Before that the Elks qualified for the post-season five consecutive years from 2006-2010. Their only playoff win came in 2007.
Obviously, they’d like to return to the playoffs and end that post-season drought. Second-year head coach Keith Schulte is confident the Elks can manage it.
“I think we’ve got good team speed,” Schulte said. “We’re replacing four of our five offensive linemen and three of our four defensive linemen. But all of our skill kids are back so year two within the system … I just think it allows them to play a little more faster, a little more confident.
“At the same time, we’re trying to get some young bucks up and running. Give them the line perspective.”
Elk Rapids offense has been dominating in the first three games, outscoring its opponents 135-12 despite breaking in a new quarterback and starting three sophomores in the offensive line.
Schulte, who coaches the offensive line, actually converted a former tight end who was a solid receiver into a lineman.
“We have decent size, (and) we have good strength,” Schulte said. “They all run pretty well so we’re not necessarily a bunch of mashers. They’re pretty good at understanding angles and using their bodies in the correct angles to help set up blocks.”
Last year’s starting quarterback Skylar Campbell graduated and was replaced by sophomore Gordie LaFontaine who was the junior varsity quarterback last year and had a good off-season.
Schulte added that he has gotten faster and is a good student of the game. Although the coach says LaFontaine has been far from perfect, he’s done a good job of managing the team and putting the Elks in pretty good situations for the most part.
One of the key returning players is senior running back Nick Aseritis, who as an all-conference selection last year.
At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds Aseritis is a load, according to Schulte. The coach also says Aseritis is “deceptively fast.” With his size Aseritis is built more like a fullback and can be used in short yardage situations as a power back.
Being undefeated after the first three games is nice, but it doesn’t make a season and Schulte is making sure the Elks stay on course.
“Winning is great, but you’ve got to maintain it,” Schulte said. “We don’t talk about winning. We talk us. We talk about getting better at our positions (and) doing our jobs. Focusing on the things we need to do.
“Right now is sort of been a constant focus on the little things. We need to be better tacklers. We need to be better at reaching on our seal blocks. We need to be better at getting reads faster on defense, taking our steps, trusting that everyone is going to be doing their job. It’s just one thing that we’re really trying to emphasize.”
Schulte praised the work defensive coordinator Tony Moller has done. The majority of those guys are in their second year running Moller’s system.
“He does a really good job of scheming things together and giving teams a lot of different looks,” Schulte said. “The kids like playing for him, and they play pretty fast. It’s been nice knowin you can kind of rely to go out there and shut people down.
“We’ve put our defense in terrible positions. We gave Charlevoix three times inside our 20 on turnovers, twice inside the 5, in our first game and Charlevoix did not get any points off them.
“It’s a good testament to them. It was that crazy day when it was raining. Like I always tell the kids, good teams find ways to win. When the cards are stacked against you, you still have to go out and do your job.”
The defensive leaders include senior safety Alex Villegas and senior defensive end Tristan Beebe.
Schulte recognizes that tougher tests loom for the Elks, including this Friday’s game against a rejuvenated Benzie Central that he expects will mix things up on both offense and defense.
But the Elks want to get back to the playoffs, especially the seniors who know they won’t have another chance, and they’re going to stay on the job.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for story ideas.