Cody Blankenburg was part of one of the brightest moments in the history of Lansing city school football less than two years ago.
The Sexton junior was on the sidelines at Ford Field in downtown Detroit and among the group of players that allowed the Big Reds to be the first city program to play for a state title.
It was an uplifting experience for the Lansing School district. And it was a moment that showed that big-time success in football could be achieved in Lansing.
But a year after that monumental moment the city programs were each not part of the playoff field. It was the first time since 2006 the state playoffs didn’t feature a Lansing city school.
And to Blankenburg and others that was just a hiccup., a small blip on the radar and just one of those things.
And they see this year as an opportunity to get back on the right track toward bringing Lansing its first football state title.
“We’re very proud of what Coach (Dan) Boggan has done over at Sexton and what his players have accomplished, and remember they are friends,” Everett coach Marcelle Carruthers said. “They grow up with each other. That’s something they are shooting for as well, but I think knowing that schools in Lansing can be so successful, we’re looking forward to it and our guys are excited to go ahead and try to reach those goals (here) that coach Boggan has (at Sexton).”
There is optimism for all three city programs this fall with Sexton and Everett fighting to earn their way back to the postseason after their playoff streaks were halted last fall.
And Eastern has several returning players for its second year under Troy Matlock, who is trying to change the culture and get the Quakers trending in a positive direction.
Big Reds on the rebound
Sexton has led the way among city schools when it has come to success on the gridiron with 16 playoff appearances. Boggan has led the Big Reds into the postseason nine times since taking over the program in 2002, which included a stretch of seven of eight seasons prior to missing the playoffs last fall.
And the highlight of the success came with Sexton going a combined 25-2 in 2013 and 2014 with the state runner-up finish in Division 6 capping that success.
The Big Reds ran into tough luck a year ago, which prevented them from building on that success. Sexton’s 2-7 record featured five losses by six points or less, including four by two points or fewer.
“Definitely it was a major hiccup,” Blankenburg said of the tough luck that led to Sexton missing the playoffs. “It motivated us for this season. I know it won’t happen again.”
Blankenburg said youth had a role last season for Sexton, which couldn’t fight its way back from an 0-4 start. The Big Reds lost 19 players from the Division 4 state runner-up team.
“Experience definitely played a major role in what happened last season,” he said. “We were all young – juniors and sophomores and a couple of seniors.”
The team now has experience along with more of a determination to show Sexton can return to the winning ways it has become accustomed to under Boggan’s leadership.
The quarterback position has been the top focus in the offseason after the departure of last year’s starter Mike Lynn III to Lansing Catholic. Blankenburg believes Sexton has the pieces in place around that position.
“People think we are going to be the same old Sexton as last year,” Blankenburg said. “We’re coming back pretty strong this year. Everybody has been working hard during the offseason.”
Righting the ship at Everett
While Sexton’s program has thrived under Boggan, Carruthers has elevated things for an Everett program that had won just two games during a five-year stretch prior to his arrival. Now in his 17th season in charge, Carruthers has rebounded from some tough early years to guide the Vikings to the postseason seven times.
It has reached the point at Everett where the playoffs have become an expectation. The Vikings had reached the postseason a school-best three consecutive years before missing the field last fall.
“The one thing we noticed when we first got (to Everett) is everybody has to be on board,” Carruthers said. “You have to go ahead and make sure you get in those hallways and tell kids, ‘Even though we’ve been down, you’ve got to give us a chance. If you come on out, you can change that program around and you’ll be that foundation that people will talk about for years to come.'”
That foundation has been established at Everett, which won a league title in 2012 to start a streak of three consecutive outright CAAC Blue championships won by city schools. The desire among Everett players is to start a new playoff streak and duplicating Sexton’s recent playoff success.
“It gives us hope of course, and we also have to have hope in our team that we can make it that far,” Everett senior Diego Martin said. “Of course city champs is right there and we can reach it and grab it. We were the city champs last year and we definitely want to do that again this year and take it a bit further.”
Carruthers is encouraged by the leadership and talent he has coming back and believes that will give Everett a chance to reach its goals this fall.
“We’ve acquired some good speed,” he said. “We’ve put together a pretty good nucleus on offense and we’re going to be pretty good on defense as well. Chemistry is everything. You can’t win without chemistry so if we have the chemistry I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
Changing the tone
Matlock understands the struggles when it comes to changing the culture of a losing football program. He was with Carruthers for his early years at Everett and saw first-hand what it takes to get a program headed in the right direction.
Now that’s his focus at Eastern, which has won just three games the last five years and hasn’t had a winning season since 1997 — the only year it has reached the state playoffs.
“I’ve been there with (Carruthers) trying to motivate the kids and trying not to have them succumb to getting used to and comfortable with losing,” Matlock said. I’ve been there with him. It’s all about motivating them and getting them interested in playing football again the right way.”
One of the biggest challenges for Eastern has been getting players on board. Junior tight end Desmond Davis said he started playing for Eastern’s Junior Quakers program in third grade and has long had a desire to be a part of the football program. Others haven’t felt the same way.
“The last couple years we couldn’t win any games and that’s probably why people don’t want to come out is because we’re not winning anything,” Davis said.
Matlock understands that reasoning, but believes a better future is ahead the more people get on board.
“They have to know with the increased numbers and with the changing in coaching styles that they should have a better outlook,” Matlock said. “We have to get them to the point where losing is not an option. That’s where I’m at and that’s what my main focus is. I want to keep them upbeat about the program and the direction we’re trying to head to, which is winning.”
Andwele Pulliam has noticed more people in the program this season and notices an improved comfort level under Matlock and his staff. The Quakers have a number of starters returning and Pulliam says plays have been upgraded this year.
And those are encouraging things to Pulliam, who hopes to help Eastern make strides on the field this season.
“We want to win,” Pulliam said. “We really just want to be better than what we were last year.”
Playoffs in the city
A look at the MHSAA football playoff appearances for Lansing’s three city schools:
Eastern (1) – 1997
Everett (8) – 1986; 2003, 2004; 2007; 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014
Sexton (16) – 1985, 1988, 1989, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009; 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014