Gielczyk: Suttons Bay Rolling After Opening Two Weeks

Early returns have been good for the Suttons Bay 8-player football team. One year after playing in the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division state regional, the Norsemen are off to a hot 2-0 start in the 2019 season.

Which isn’t really that much of a surprise, with five starters coming back on both offense and defense from the 2018 squad that finished 9-2. That experience created high expectations as the season approached, and so far the Norsemen have not disappointed.

Suttons Bay opened the season with a 62-8 trouncing of Bear Lake, a program still in its infancy and always working with a bunch of players who have never played before, and then shut out Bellaire, 48-0 last week.

That’s the most points (110) a Suttons Bay football team has scored in the school’s history. Pretty impressive stuff. And a reason for optimism that the Norsemen can make another deep playoff run.

It’s also allowed second-year head coach Garrick Opie to use some of the younger players on the roster and been pleased with their performance, which could prove valuable moving forward.

“They have elevated their games as well, and I am super impressed with them,” said Opie. “There’s a lot of athleticism and speed, memorizing plays. They’ve played hard, and not played tentatively as you might expect from some of the younger guys. I think they are all excited, and bonded very well.

“We were fortunate enough to go deep into the playoffs last year, and you have to have depth at every position. You have to have kids that know two to three positions at all times, and sometimes more, so we can rotate players as needed.”

It also takes team chemistry.

Opie, who replaced Dan Durkin as head coach last season, says the Norsemen have it this season.

“We’ve got a real team,” Opie said. “It’s one where I feel that the guys are really coming together as a family, as we try to profess in our system. We’ve had two games where we’ve been able to put all of our players in, and I think that everybody’s pulling for each other.

“Everyone is happy to see another (teammate) succeed, and I think that kind of thing is extremely important, and we’re extremely lucky to have this year.”

Opie, 46, is in his second year as the Norsemen’s head coach after 10 years as an assistant. He was familiar with the program, as well as the players, making the transition much easier.

Although he’d never been a head coach before, Opie didn’t hesitate¬†to apply for the job when Dan Durkin stepped down after the 2017 season.

The Norsemen had forfeited seven games in 2016, its final season of 11-man football, for the safety of the players.

Everyone is hoping for some stability now that the Norsemen made such a smashing debut in 8-man football last year, and their 2-0 start this year is fueling more expectations.

“I think a lot of schools are finding out that this (8-man football) is a great format,” said Opie. “It’s a great way to essentially save the sport. When you have a 13 or 15 player roster, sometimes 18, and try to play 11-man football, it doesn’t always allow players to succeed.

“For the size of our school, 8-man allows you to put kids in a position to succeed. We wanted to keep the kids safe, and wanted to put them in positions to succeed. It (8-man football) feels right at this point.”

Opie coached the majority of this year’s underclassmen in YMCA Pop Warner Football, and they are familiar with how he coaches, and what he expects out of his players.

As a parent, Opie has reservations putting his son at the controls of the Norsemen offense as the starting quarterback.

But as a coach, he would be remiss if he didn’t have Bryce Opie taking snaps under center.

“He’s gone to a lot of collegiate camps and so forth, and performed well,” coach Opie says. “I believe that he has a lot of talent, and has a very good mind for football. He has a 3.78 grade point average, and I’m proud of him.”

Lucas Mikesell’s presence in the offensive backfield lessens some of the pressure on Bryce Opie as well as his dad, with his natural athletic ability and great vision.

Possessing the kind of quickness to take advantage of the open spaces 8-man football creates, Mikesell also runs hard and is difficult to bring down in the open field.

Camryn Knaub gives the Norsemen another offensive weapon, and is quick off the edge with some head spinning jump cuts. He also plays defensive end, while Mikesell is a cornerback.

“We’ve just got a lot of really good, solid kids both mentally and physically,” says Opie. “Guys like Cesar Ramirez and Gavyn Shananaquet who are really strong players and guys that have stepped up into some power spots that we have needed.

“Shananaquet is a linebacker and fullback. He’s done incredibly well, stepping up to the plate. It amazes me how well they remember all that I throw at them, because we have a broad range of things that we teach them every day. They’ve been able to grasp it all.”

It’s been a great start, but the Norsemen need to stay focused because bigger games against better opponents lie ahead.

Opie doesn’t expect the Norsemen to keep up their early pace against teams that are better equipped to offer a stiffer challenge.

There’s no time to relax if they’re going to get back to the playoffs, and make another run at a state title.

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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