Football fever heats up Kent City and its community
Kent City - Devin Loew had just ducked into the local gas station for a quick drink when he was cornered by three well-wishers who began questioning him over the odds of Kent City advancing to the next round of the state playoffs.
Loew is a senior guard who has witnessed firsthand the highs and lows of the last three seasons. Loew said much of the conversation was inquisitive. At the moment, however, Loew would have been just as content to grab his Gatorade and steal away to the sanctuary of home.
He quickly realized, however, that a dose of public relations was needed. People interested enough to respectfully ask about the football team's chances needed to be engaged.
"I had just walked down to the gas station and three people stopped me and started asking, 'What do you think about the game Friday? Can we win?'" Loew said.
"Sometimes you wish you could just go and do your own thing, but most of the time it's cool. People really rally around the team and want to know what's going on. It's like we've become a big deal."
Welcome to high school football in West Michigan, where larger programs such as Rockford and Lowell grab much of the headlines in terms of winning, but explain only part of why the sport is king on the state's west side. It's a story of small communities such as Kent City, which after enduring 14 straight losing seasons, suddenly wins 18 of 21 games over a stunning two-year period while capturing the interest of an entire community. The Eagles take a 10-0 record into Friday's Division 6 district final at Montague (10-0).
The matchup is more than a football story. It's a tale of a long-suffering community in terms of football which has not only rallied around a team and school but invigorated an entire community as well. There are pep rallies, the decoration of the town's businesses, team dinners at the local bowling lane, pregame meetings of fans, friends and family at the town's downtown pizza hangout, and crowds so large at the games that fans stand several rows deep around the field.
It's what Friday Night Lights should be all about.
"The games are big and the whole town is there," Loew said. "Everyone is there, your family, friends and even guys from other schools that you know. It's been interesting to see the change. Two years ago we were not very successful, but to see the change and the turnout now is amazing.
"It used to be, 'okay, let's go to the game.' But now the culture has changed."
It’s changed in a major way. Prior to last season, Kent City hadn't won more than four games in a season since a 7-4 mark in 2001. But last season the team soared to an 8-3 record, which included just the second playoff win in school history. This season, with six starters back on both offense and defense, the closest any team has come to beating the Eagles was a 41-20 victory over Ravenna in the opener. Eight of the wins have been by at least 26 points.
That's heady stuff, not only for a program, but an entire community. Located 20 miles north of Grand Rapids, Kent City has a population of about 1,000. The city's modest size hasn't kept crowds this fall from reaching a few hundred north of the population. Not only has virtually every home game been a sell-out, several hundred fans typically travel to away games.
"It's been exciting, people aren't used to it," said athletic director Jason Vogel, who doubles as an assistant football coach. "We've been good in other sports, but football has been a struggle.
"Football is what people do on a Friday night. In winter its basketball, but football games are a social event. It helps to have a good team. We've been ranked all year, the band is ranked third in the state and people come out. It's the only show in town."
Vogel said the school's website gets about 30,000 hits every month, making it one of the busiest in the state. Fans come early to games, carve out spots in the bleachers with blankets, and head to the concession stands for a cup of coffee, a hot dog and conversations with either neighbors or friends they haven't seen in years.
Jeff Sabin, who owns the downtown Papa Piccione restaurant and is a former Kent City football player, said a winning and popular football team sparks interest not only within a school, but the entire community.
"The football program struggled for a long time and I was on some of those teams," he said. "But (businesses) have always supported the team. Now they've been good the last couple years and you can't get a seat in the stands on a Friday night.
"And that does a lot for businesses, too. It brings in business; I can see huge increases. It's definitely bigger and better because of the hype."
Kent City football coach Bill Crane, who is also the high school principal, said there is little that matches the camaraderie found in a small town on a crisp Friday night in the fall.
"Maybe there aren't a ton of businesses, but the last three weeks, when I've gone downtown, that's what is on people's minds," he said of the team's success. "They want to talk about what's going on because that's what is on their minds. It's been exciting, all the engagement in the school and community."
As for the players, Kent City is led by junior running back Gio Weeks, who has rushed for 1,300 yards as the main ball carrier in Crane’s wing-T offense. Senior guards Loew and Sam Deems provide leadership. Junior John Meek is a dual-threat quarterback. On defense, Jace Dailey is a three-year starter who was selected all-state last season.
Sabin said the next hurdle, Montague, a team seeking revenge after last year's heart-wrenching 20-19 loss to Kent City in the district finals, could be problematic.
But, what-the-heck, said Sabin. Plans need to be made to accommodate a possible 11th consecutive Kent City win.
"We have a lot of high school kids working for us," Sabin said. "And we've already discussed that if we win, we're going to close down and go watch the game."