PORTLAND – Missing the postseason last fall didn’t sit well with Mark Brooks and the Portland football program.
Brooks has made it a point to not experience anything again like last year, which ended with a 4-5 record and the Raiders missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
“All the seniors that came back told all the younger guys how bad it was and that we didn’t want to go back there again,” Brooks said.
John Novara, who is in his 17th year leading the Portland program, sensed his players taking the struggles from last fall personally. And he’s noticed that making a difference in the summer and so far this season.
“The kids really worked hard in the weight room and doing other things, and they’re just determined to remake a name for Portland,” Novara said. “We do have a pretty good tradition here and they kind of felt like they let us down a little bit. They’ve been working really hard to try to make a name for us again.”
The results this season have been positive for Portland, which is 3-0 and ranked No. 9 in Division 5 in this week’s Associated Press state poll. And the Raiders have a chance to make a big statement and move another step closer to returning to the playoffs Friday when they face Minnesota-bound quarterback Tony Poljan and Division 5 top-ranked Lansing Catholic in a key CAAC White contest.
“We’ve been looking forward to this all summer and we’ve always talked about that we’ve got to beat Catholic,” Portland junior running back Logan Lefke said. “That’s just been the game circled on everybody’s schedule that we need to win this year.
“It’s been us or them that normally gets a league title. We won it in 2013 and they won it last year. I think the year before that they won it also. It’s created a rivalry between us.”
Lansing Catholic has won four of the last five matchups in the growing rivalry between the schools, including a 34-6 victory last year. But the Cougars will get their toughest test to date in Portland, whose success so far this season has partly been attributed to improved offense.
The Raiders have scored 115 points through three games after scoring just 160 a year ago. And Novara points to his improved offensive line, which is anchored by 6-foot-7 Western Michigan commit Brooks, for helping Portland produce more points. That unit has paved the way for Lefke, who ranks among the area’s rushing leaders with 392 yards and six touchdowns.
Novara has also been pleased with his defense and the commitment his team has shown to watching film and studying opponents.
“I really like their work, even during the season,” he said. “We’re doing a ton of film work. We’re just really happy with that, and I think we’ve been playing really good defense. If we can run the football, control the ball and play good defense, usually good things happen for us.”
Portland hopes those things will all happen Friday so it can add to its bounce back season and gain an early edge in the CAAC White race.
“(Lansing Catholic was) the only team to beat us in 2012 when we won a state championship and the kids have a big history with them,” Novara said. “They know that they are the No. 1 team in the state and it gives them an opportunity to go out there and maybe show some people that they’re back.”