PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1-East Grand Rapids
2-Grand Rapids Christian
3-Forest Hills Eastern
TOP FIVE NON-CONFERENCE MATCHUPS
1-Week 1 Farmington Hills Harrison @ East Grand Rapids
2-Week 3 East Grand Rapids @ Lowell
3-Week 1 Dewitt @ Grand Rapids Christian
4-Week 2 South Christian @ Benton Harbor
5-Week 4 Forest Hills Eastern @ Catholic Central
FIVE MATCHUPS THAT WILL DECIDE THE OK GOLD
1-Week 6 East Grand Rapids @ Grand Rapids Christian
2-Week 8 Forest Hills Eastern @ East Grand Rapids
3-Week 7 Grand Rapids Christian @ Forest Hills Eastern
4-Week 9 South Christian @ East Grand Rapids
5-Week 4 Grand Rapids Christian @ South Christian
East Grand Rapids (8-3 in 2016)
Coach Casey Longo was one of a handful of first year coaches in the OK Gold a season ago, and his team never skipped a beat from the successes of Peter Stuursma. After a tough non-conference slate left the Pioneers 1-2, they ran off seven consecutive wins en route to a perfect OK Gold record and a trip to the district finals. Unfortunately for East Grand Rapids, the speed of Muskegon was just too much and they suffered a 28-10 loss to the eventual Division 3 runner-up.
This season, the Pioneers have another tough non-conference slate as they will face state powers Farmington Hills Harrison and Lowell. There are some key contributors returning for East this season, and that starts under center with quarterback Mike Malewitz. The senior will return as the offensive general fresh off a season in which he threw for 1500 yards and 16 touchdowns. Though they must replace their leading rusher, there is a trio of pass catchers at Malewitz’ disposal that return from last season.
All three options provide unique matchup challenges for opposing defenses, as there is the fast (Ben Forstner), the physical (Marty Ward), and the tight end (Max Lundeen). These three will contribute on the defensive side as well, especially Lundeen, who was one of the top tacklers in the OK Gold a season ago. In the trenches, East Grand Rapids has a pair of players that each dominate their side of the football. Michael Eerdmans is a big body with good feet, and he is responsible for anchoring the offensive line that will protect Malewitz. On defense, senior Michael Afton has a relentless motor, and his lead by example mentality provides a strong foundation for the entire defensive unit.
BIGGEST GAME: Week 3 at Lowell
It’s a shame that conference realignment took one of the area’s best rivalry games out of conference context, but thankfully they have agreed to meet in the non-conference these first two seasons. Lowell has won seven consecutive matchups in this series, a fact that cannot be sitting well in the minds of the Pioneers.
Forest Hills Eastern (3-6 in 2016)
In their first year in the OK Gold, the Hawks had a bit of an eye-opening year as they faced four of Grand Rapids’ most storied programs. Entering his second year in charge, Coach Ben Sherman said that he feels his players now know the expectation that comes with the successes of those programs, and his experienced bunch is looking for a huge bounce back year. Eastern returns 20 seniors to their roster in 2017, including all three linebackers.
Caleb Beal and Cray Brenner will anchor the defense at the linebacker positions, and they will be joined by a trio of two-way stars that may make their biggest impacts on offense. Bennett VanSolkema will step back under center this fall to lead the Hawks offense, and he will have three-year starting tailback Caden Peters to carry the load on the ground. Peters will benefit from the blocking of Paul Weirich, a three-year starter at offensive tackle. Coach Sherman said that Weirich is a tremendous leader, and many of his teammates look to him to be the leader this fall.
BIGGEST GAME: Week 7 vs Grand Rapids Christian
The Hawks have the benefit of hosting both Grand Rapids Christian and East Grand Rapids in consecutive weeks. If they want any chance at winning the Gold this season, at least splitting these two games would go a long way.
Grand Rapids Christian (9-2 in 2016)
Grand Rapids Christian continued their success’ under Coach Don Fellows in their first season in the OK Gold. The Eagles went 9-2 and reached their seventh straight postseason before falling in the district finals to Byron Center. Eleven starters (six offense/five defense) return for the Eagles as they attempt to make their eighth straight playoff push.
Offensively, senior quarterback Isaac Dykema will have a plethora of offensive weapons at his disposal. Darius Barfield and Seth Millner, who are strong basketball players as well, will serve as explosive pass catchers. Anthony Ladd returns as a tailback, and he and Tre Vallar will have the opportunity to run behind Malachi Price and Seth Tubergen, staples from last year’s offensive line.
The defense returns a trio of secondary members as Ladd and Barfield are joined by safety Sage Serbenta. James Patrick and Miles Stapert will also return at outside linebacker and defensive end respectively. Coach Fellows loves this team’s chemistry and athletic play, as well as their focus and hard work in the offseason. Though there are a couple concerns about the team’s depth at certain positions, expect the Eagles to remain near the top of the OK Gold and in the playoff conversation.
BIGGEST GAME: Week 6 vs East Grand Rapids
The Eagles host the reigning OK Gold champions at home in Week 6. Much like last year, this matchup will go the farthest of any in determining the OK Gold conference champion.
Middleville (0-9 in 2016)
Last year, the Trojans struggled, as they lost all nine contests for just the second time in school history. They had a pair of games that were decided by three points, but they struggled offensively, scoring 98 points in nine games (10.9 PPG).
This season, Middleville will be under new leadership as Jeff Dock takes the reigns as head coach. Dock’s team will be led by four-year varsity player Kyler Podbevsek, who will start at both running back and linebacker. Another two-way player will be Brian Chestnutt, who will anchor the offensive and defensive lines.
The Trojans will be inexperienced at certain spots this season, including at quarterback. In addition to that, they will be adjusting to the coaching style of Dock, while navigating a tough OK Gold schedule. They should record a victory, but it will be a rebuilding year this fall for Middleville.
BIGGEST GAME: Week 1 at Hastings
The Saxons and the Trojans are rivals that played every season in the OK Gold from 2003-2015. This year, the Trojans have them back on the schedule, and Hastings is coming off of a 2-7 campaign. This is one of the contests that they have the highest probability of winning this fall.
South Christian (5-5 in 2016)
The Sailors had a strong season in 2016, returning to the postseason after a one-year hiatus in 2015. Two of their five defeats came at the hands of Benton Harbor, including a 48-28 loss in the playoffs.
This year, South Christian has Benton Harbor back on the schedule, as they face four teams who reached the playoffs this season. The senior class is experienced, and that starts at the quarterback position with Andrew Haan. Up front, look for Jamieson Burgess, David Masselink and Bryce Oosterheert to lead the way on the offensive and defensive lines.
A football-rich school with fourteen playoff appearances and three Division 4 Championships since the start of the millennium, South Christian should be back in the postseason yet again in 2017. This year, they will look to compete for the league title and a win in the postseason, two feats that have not happened in three years.
BIGGEST GAME: Week 9 at East Grand Rapids
The Sailors have the depth and experience to make a legitimate run for the OK Gold Championship this fall. If they play well in Weeks 3 and 4 against FHE and GRC, it will all come down to Week 9 against the Pioneers.
Wayland (3-6 in 2016)
2016 was a step in the right direction for Mike Doupe and his Wayland football team. The Wildcats went 3-6, which was an improvement in the win column for the second straight season. They finished tied for fourth in the conference, and even took league runner-up Grand Rapids Christian to the wire before falling 41-36.
Two-way starter Mason Miller will return to lead the charge for the Wildcats, as he lines up as a physical runner and defensive lineman. Joining him on the defensive line is fellow senior Arrow Kotarak, who will start both ways in the trenches. Another senior to keep your eyes on is wide receiver and linebacker Ian Carpenter, who will be a strong pass catcher for the new starting quarterback.
This team is a young bunch with very few seniors other than the three listed above. Coach Doupe sees plenty of positives in this bunch, especially their cohesiveness. They will face four teams that reached the postseason a year ago, but they will also take on two teams that were winless a season ago. If the juniors can carry their fair share of the load, Wayland may be able to upset a team or two.
BIGGEST GAME: Week 5 vs South Christian
In the fifth game of the year, the Wildcats take on OK Gold rival South Christian, a team they have faced every year since 1978. Wayland has struggled with success in this contest however, as they have not defeated the Sailors since 2007. With the middle tier of the OK Gold up for grabs, this game will be important as both teams try to get closer to the postseason.
Wyoming (5-4 in 2016)
Last season, the Wolves started out hot with a 3-1 record. Over the last five games, the Wolves went 2-3, including two losses by a touchdown or less, and they were unable to qualify for the playoffs at 5-4.
This year, Wyoming has a change at the head coaching position as Irv Sigler takes over. The son of West Michigan football coaching legend Irv Sigler, he hopes to replicate some of his father’s successes in the postseason. Leading the way this season for Wyoming will be senior Donnie Buentello, who was a strong running back and defensive back a year ago. Senior Tony Jolliffi will take the snaps under center for Wyoming, as they pursue the school’s first playoff appearance.
BIGGEST GAME: Week 7 at South Christian
A hot start in non-conference action is going to be necessary for the Wolves to reach the postseason without too many upsets, but this Week 7 road test will be a measuring stick in determining the team’s legitimacy.
OTHER 2017 FOOTBALL PREVIEWS