In Play with Tom Markowski

In Play with Tom Markowski
Football

Okemos is off to best start in nearly 20 years, plays Grand Ledge in CAC showdown

Okemos is off to best start in nearly 20 years, plays Grand Ledge in CAC showdown
BY: TOM MARKOWSKI Sep 21, 10:00am

Okemos – Jack Wallace was ready to call it quits. Having spent 33 seasons coaching at Fowlerville in addition to his job as a teacher, then as an athletic director, had him thinking this is it.

Then things changed. He had a talk with Bill Feraco, the head coach at East Lansing. Soon after the two agreed that Wallace would serve as Feraco’s assistant. That was in 2011.

Fast-forward to now and Wallace is in the middle of his sixth season as the head coach at Okemos.

Old coaches never die. They just move on.

“All year I was at East Lansing, I got the bug,” Wallace said. “Then the Okemos job opened up.”

Okemos, huh? It’s hardly been the hotbed for football in the last 20 years. At one time the Chieftains were one of the top teams in the Lansing area. In 1980 they lost in the Class B final. That came off of a 9-0 season that didn’t produce a playoff team. And from 1986 until 1999 Okemos won seven or more games in a season 10 times.

Then the program took a step back. Since 2000 Okemos has had four winning seasons before Wallace was hired.

One must wonder, even if a veteran coach wants to get back on the treadmill, why go to a program that hadn’t shown signs of bouncing back.    

It isn’t so odd, though. Wallace and his family had made their home in Okemos even when he worked in the Fowlerville school system.  He knew the community. He was aware of the possibilities.

But there was a hole to dig out of. The 2011 team finished 7-4 with a senior-dominated team. The 2012 team had one returning starter and the lack of participation forced the school to cancel the junior varsity season. Okemos was 2-7 that season.

“From that point I had to contact other people, other coaches, to try to motivate the players,” Wallace said. “We needed a change of culture and get that passion back. The tradition was there.”

Okemos was 3-6 in Wallace’s second season and the 2014 team made the playoffs after winning their last four games to qualify at 6-3.

The school has sponsored a junior varsity since Wallace’s first year but the varsity fell back to seasons of 1-8 and 2-7, respectively. This season, however, there is no freshmen team as the 15 freshmen were placed on the junior varsity.

The varsity has surpassed many expectations. Okemos is 4-0 for the first time since 1998, the last time the program won a league (Capital Circuit) title. The group is a good mix of 15 seniors and 27 juniors who have jelled as a unit.

The top seniors are Patrick Nugent, a physical tight end who has four touchdown receptions this season and Dom Clerkley, who doubles as a quarterback and receiver. He’s scored six touchdowns, rushing and receiving combined. Drew McGaugh plays sideline to sideline at linebacker and scored nine touchdowns from his fullback slot.

“They do everything right,” Wallace said of his seniors. “They’re upstanding young men.

“We’re just trying to stay positive. Winning helps.”

Okemos plays at Grand Ledge (3-1) on Friday at 7 p.m. The Comets are the standard-bearers in the Capital Area Conference Blue Division.  The Comets won the division title the last two seasons and are favored, led by quarterback Nolan Bird, to win a third straight title. Lansing Sexton won CAC Blue in 2013 and ’14. Pick: Grand Ledge by 15.

Byron Center (3-1) at Zeeland West (2-2): These teams, along with Zeeland East, are the big dogs in the O-K Conference Green Division. West lost to Muskegon Mona Shores and Grand Rapids West Catholic, teams with state championship aspirations. Byron Center’s loss was to the state’s No. 1-ranked team, Muskegon. Byron Center trailed in that game, 21-14, before the floodgates open (63-14 final). Byron Center won last season, 24-14. Pick: West by 2.

Grandville (3-1) at East Kentwood (4-0): The O-K Red Division, without fail, has a handful of big games every season and this is one. East Kentwood lost the last two in this series including 46-3 last season. Grandville got stunned by Warren DeLaSalle in the second week of the season and its offense has had success against these Falcons in the past. Pick: Grandville by 4.

Midland (3-1) at Bay City Central (3-1): Both teams lost their opener. This is a Saginaw Valley Association crossover but the stakes are high for teams that missed the playoffs a season ago. Central could run the table with a victory here. Central by 2.

Montague (4-0) at Whitehall (3-1): Montague is one the best Division 6 teams. The Wildcats have found little resistance so far as they’ve outscored their opponents, 237-21. Montague leads the series 37-36 and has dominated recently winning nine of the last 10. Pick: Montague by 18.   

Portland (3-1) at Lansing Catholic Central (4-0): This is always one of the top games in mid-Michigan. Portland leads the series 8-6 and the teams split their last four games. Portland won last year, 36-35, but lost to C.C. 21-14 in a 2015 division 5 district final. Portland’s loss was to a larger school, Lansing Sexton. Pick: Portland by 3.

U-D Jesuit (1-3) at Dearborn Divine Child (4-0): This is the Catholic League AA opener for both teams. U-D’s schedule has been brutal. Losing competitive games to Detroit Catholic Central and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s is little consolation for a team that’s on the playoff bubble. Divine Child’s schedule has been less formidable and U-D could be the best team it’s played to this point. Pick: Divine Child by 3.

Warren Woods Tower (4-0) at Warren Fitzgerald (4-0): This is a MAC crossover but there’ll be plenty to boast about for the winner in this Warren city rivalry. Woods Tower has Jajuan Lovejoy, one of the top skill position athletes in the MAC Gold Division and Fitzgerald senior running back Martez Nelson has been productive lately rushing for 151 yards and two TDs in last week’s 52-32 victory over St. Clair Shores South Lake. Pick: Woods Tower by 9. 

Waterford Mott (3-1) at Waterford Kettering (2-2): The new Lakes Valley Conference is as unpredictable as any. Mott lost to White Lake Lakeland, 29-27, and Lakeland defeated Kettering, 22-16, last week, the same night that Mott shocked Walled Lake Western, 47-37. Who knows? Walled Lake Central, at 3-1 in conference play, might win this crazy conference. Pick: Kettering by 3.

West Bloomfield (2-2) at Rochester Adams (4-0): Adams has been the surprise team in the Oakland Activities Association. Adams forced four turnovers in last week’s 54-14 victory over Bloomfield Hills. West Bloomfield has been its own worst enemy at times with untimely turnovers and a plethora of penalties. Quarterback Bryce Veasley needs to have another fine showing in order for West Bloomfield to win its third straight. Pick: West Bloomfield by 4.

Last week’s record: 8-2

2017 record: 26-14