BRECKENRIDGE – As the Breckenridge offense took a knee for its final play of the 2015 season, Jack Staley thought his high school football career was over.
The Huskies were about to finish 0-9 with a 49-6 loss to Burton Bendle when Breckenridge coach Kris Robinson elected to call an end to the latest rout.
“Our kids were fearless,” Robinson said. “They kept going. They’d run into the wall repeatedly if we asked them to. It almost was like they didn’t know when enough was enough, so I had to do it for them.”
But Staley, a junior, figured his football career was going to come to a premature conclusion under the worst possible circumstances.
“Last year just going 0-9, and football is not my main sport,” said Staley, 6 feet 5, who averaged 16 points a game for the basketball team last season. “Just the attitude on the team didn’t want to make me come back.”
Junior Kenyon Story, a defensive end/offensive tackle, was not going to give up on football, but he understood Staley’s decision not to play again after such a dreadful season.
“As a team, no one wanted to show up,” Story said. “I know, me personally, I didn’t want to show up.”
But Staley listened to his younger brother Carter, the team’s quarterback, and his father, and decided to give football one more try.
So there he was Sunday evening, sitting alongside his teammates at the local American Legion Post 295 watching the MHSAA football playoff selection show — knowing that Breckenridge’s name was going to pop up as one of the 256 schools competing in the state playoffs for only the third time in school history.
Even more unlikely are the circumstances under which the Huskies (9-0) have earned a first-round home game tonight at 7 against Saginaw Nouvel.
Senior offensive tackle Martin Betancourt had no aspirations of making the state playoffs this season after suffering through the disastrous season a year ago.
“Not just because we lost, but the attitude we had towards the year,” he said. “Everybody hung their heads, and you could kind of feel that just going to practice and getting out of practice and going to the games.”
Betancourt had a simple goal for this season.
“Personally, I just wanted to get one win to let everyone know we were capable of doing that,” he said. “After that, we didn’t want to settle for just one.”
And after defeating Houghton Lake, 38-29, in the opener, the Huskies settled for nine.
Breckenridge is the first school since the playoffs began in 1975 to go from 0-9 to 9-0 in 11-man football. The turnaround has shocked nearly everyone connected to the football team and the mid-Michigan town.
“I’m really surprised we’re 9-0 so far,” Staley said. “Even when we did something wrong, the attitude was still good. We didn’t put ourselves down. Instead, we pushed through and won the game.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of this turnaround is that the Huskies didn’t lose any returning players from last year’s team. In fact, the roster actually grew with upperclassmen.
“No, we got people,” Robinson said. “We actually got more people from the hallways. We just spent the whole year working the hallways and changed the attitude right out of the gate from last year.”
Robinson was confident the Huskies would be better than a year ago. The coach saw the way the upperclassmen were meshing with the underclassmen.
But Robinson, who grew up in Breckenridge, had seen too many coaches talk about unrealistic expectations only to wind up with another losing season. So, he spoke about winning only one game.
“I knew we were going to be better, but I couldn’t really vocalize that,” he said. “You can’t say out loud that we’re going to be world-beaters. I wouldn’t be that guy.”
For 10 years, Breckenridge competed in the West Division of the Tri-Valley Conference, which features powerhouse Ithaca, before moving to the Mid-State Athletic Conference this season — where the Huskies play teams more their size.
Still, three teams that crushed Breckenridge last year remained on the schedule.
“Knowing that we’ve got players, knowing that we had all of them back, we felt we were going to be better,” Robinson said. “It was the perfect storm. We knew we were going to switch leagues, and we may have pulled a couple of kids because of that.”
If nothing else, the Breckenridge kids were happy to have Ithaca in their rearview mirror.
“Our kids did not want to play Ithaca,” Robinson said. “I think it helped knowing that we were playing schools our size.”
As the opener against Houghton Lake approached, Betancourt had doubts about how good the team could be. He hoped to be 5-4, like Breckenridge was two years ago.
But he thought if the players began hanging their heads when things went south, like they did last year, a successful season could be in jeopardy.
This season barely started when Betancourt knew he had drastically underestimated the team.
“Honestly, it was after Houghton Lake,” he said. “I know it’s a really incredible statement, but they had an all-state quarterback and an all-state running back. And the running back only had about 50 yards and they had to go to passing, and they only had about 100 yards there. After we shut them both down, I was thinking if we can do that, we can do anything.”
Even more outrageous was Story’s expectations of a playoff spot after one victory.
“After we beat Houghton Lake, I figured it out that we could have a good shot,” Story said. “The attitude just changed from last year to this year. I knew something special was going to come with this group of kids. I’ve grown up with everybody here. I just know there’s a lot of athletes out there, and I just knew something was coming.”
Before the season, Story thought the Huskies were capable of contending for a league title and a spot in the playoffs. He did not, however, see 9-0 coming.
“It’s insane,” he said. “It’s just magical.”
That would be a good description of the environment in the school these days. Many school administrators claim a successful football season can set a tone for an entire school year — and that has been the case in the hallways at Breckenridge.
“The atmosphere is way different,” principal Sheila Pilmore said. “There is more school spirit. Kids are just happier in general. It’s just been a different atmosphere, a positive culture. You don’t hear the jabs at the football team. Everybody is so supportive.”
This is Pilmore’s 19th year at Breckenridge and only the second winning season she has seen.
“It’s amazing the difference,” she said. “For me, it’s so different because I’d come away so disappointed for the kids. I felt bad for them because they got beat up week after week after week.”
Like Robinson, Pilmore had an inkling this season could be substantially better than a year ago.
“The first day of practice, I walked out to see how it was going, and Kris had 50 kids,” she said, counting varsity and JV players. “He said he didn’t know what to do with 50 kids.”
Robinson, in his fourth year, and his coaches did know how to coach them, and that is why the Huskies have their second winning season in 19 years.
Despite the lack of success over an extended time, Breckenridge can be a tough crowd. Locals complained that it took until Week 7 before the Huskies were proficient enough in the kicking game to attempt extra points. And early on, people suggested anyone could put on a headset and coach these guys to a winning season.
But not just anyone could coach them into the state playoffs with a 9-0 season, and the response from the town has become incredible.
“When we had Merrill here in Week 7, it was as loud as I’ve ever heard it,” Robinson said. “It was ridiculous here, and we’ve been to Ithaca. It was loud. I couldn’t call plays in, and that’s when it was quiet. Oh, boy, when we were on defense it was nuts. It was amazing.”
As the season wore on, word of Breckenridge’s success spread and the players became mini-celebrities.
“Even when I go over to Alma to get something to eat,” Staley said, “I’ll get stopped by someone that I don’t even recognize and they’ll tell me good game.”
But had Staley not listened to his younger brother and father, he would have been in the stands when the Huskies made state history.
“I’d be a little mad at myself, but I’d still be happy that we were doing that good,” he said. “For football in my high school career, I never thought I’d play in the playoffs. This year proved me wrong.”