The Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East Division will have a different look in 2012 for football, with one team leaving and a new team coming in. But the teams near the top might not change as Harper Creek and Sturgis look to be strong again.
Perennial power Jackson Lumen Christi has now left the SMAC East, as it won or shared the division title every season since 2007 before last year when Harper Creek won the crown outright with an undefeated record.
Coming in to replace Lumen Christi is Gull Lake, which has outgrown the Wolverine Conference. Gull Lake joined the SMAC in all other sports during the school year last year, but this will be the first season for football for the Blue Devils.
Harper Creek returns a strong group of returning players including Kody Carson, who is on track to set the school record in career rushing yards and a solid offensive line with Division I recruit Josh Bass leading the way after he accepted a scholarship to Eastern Michigan University over the summer.
Sturgis made a big jump last year, finishing second in the division with its lone loss coming to Harper Creek. The Trojans are led by quarterback Chance Stewart, who had already accepted a scholarship offer from Wisconsin before ever taking a snap during his junior year.
League coaches expect Lakeview and Marshall to threaten for spots in the top half of the division and Coldwater and Battle Creek Central look to be improved as they have new leadership.
* Head coach: Jim Hendershot (3rd season)
* 2011 record: 4-5
* Top returners: Danny Welke (jr., QB), Braden Banfield (sr., WR/DB), Chase Bennett (sr., WR/DB), Lucas Blanchard (sr., WR/DB), Tony Wimberly (sr., RB/LB), Conner Vincent (sr., OL/LB), Drew Maisner (jr., OL/LB), Madison Hautau (jr., OL/DL)
* Outlook: Before the last two seasons, Marshall had only one losing season since 1982. However, the Redhawks have struggled recently, failing to get over the .500 mark for a couple of seasons now.
But in his third year, Jim Hendershot might have Marshall heading in the right direction. after going 1-8 two seasons ago, the Redhawks climbed back to 4-5 last year. That trend could continue with a good core group of players returning.
“Our expectations never change, no matter what. At Marshall, you work hard every day and give great effort and the wins and losses will take care of themselves,” Hendershot said. “We are going to be thin at some spots, that’s a number game, that’s a fact of life, but I like what we see and I think we have some talent.”
Leading the returning group is Tony Wimberly, who was on his way to a big season last year before getting injured. Wimberly is expected to lead the running attack for Marshall after running for nearly 800 yards and 10 touchdowns in just five games in 2011. He will be joined in the backfield by junior quarterback Danny Welke, who took over the starting spot last season as a sophomore midway through the year.
Marshall hopes to rely on its other skill position players with a deep group at receiver in Braden Banfield, Lucas Blanchard and Chase Bennett, all coming back after seeing time last season.
Other key returners include lineman Conner Vincent, Drew Maisner and Madison Hautau.
* Head coach: Jeff Schorfhaar (1st season)
* 2011 record: 1-8
* Top returners: Tom Hook (sr., OT/DT), Skylar Reincke (sr., QB/RB/DB), Cam Sielken (sr., DB), Jacob Risner (sr., OL), Darrien Bradley (jr., OT/DT)
* Outlook: Coldwater continues to try and turn around a struggling program with first-year head coach Jeff Schorfhaar. The Cardinals went 1-8 last year and haven’t won more than three games since 2005. However, based on the solid play by the junior varsity program and some competitive games last year at the varsity level, some SMAC coaches think Coldwater is ready for a solid return to the top half of the division.
If Coldwater is going to turn things around it will depend how quickly the players learn a new system. Success could start up front for the Cardinals with three returners on the offensive line with Tom Hook, Jacob Risner and Darrien Bradley.
“We are a young team trying to learn a new system right now. We might struggle a little at the beginning of the year but we hope to be competitive in every game. The kids have been working extremely hard and doing a great job in practice. They have a great attitude . I know we have a tough schedule but we are looking forward to the challenge,” Schorfhaar said.
* Head coach: Tim Hiller (2nd season)
* 2011 record: 3-6
* Top returners: Zac Caldwell (sr., TE/DE), QB Ryan Mutchler (jr., QB), Alex Meade (sr., SS/WR), Pat Gaudard (sr., LB/RB), Nick Miller (jr., CB/WR), Ryan Melbow (sr., DT), Connor Owen (sr., WR/SS)
* Outlook: In his second season in the program, Hiller is looking for progress and improvement on Gull Lake’s 3-6 season from a year ago. That would also turn around a trend for the Blue Devils who have only had one winning season in the last four. They are also entering their first season of play in the SMAC East, after having played for years in the Wolverine Conference and they hope to make a big splash in the new league with a new turf field for home games.
“I think we had a good first year in building the foundation. Obviously it isn’t the results that we wanted. But from getting everyone on the same page I do feel like we accomplished what we wanted to do, now we are putting more emphasis on strength and conditioning and everybody knows the system better now — so there’s progress,” Hiller said.
Gull Lake will depend on several skill position players, including tight end Zac Caldwell and receiver Connor Owen and the Blue Devils bring back their starting quarterback in Ryan Mutchler, who saw time last year as a sophomore. On defense, Gull Lake will depend on last year’s top tackling duo of Pat Gaudard at linebacker and Alex Meade at safety.