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RIVALS SERIES: You gotta know what you’re getting into, joining a rivalry like the St. Joe-Lakeshore ‘War by the Shore’

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, September 20, 2019, 4:07 pm

BERRIEN COUNTY — You gotta know what you’re getting into.

For the coaches in Friday night’s War by the Shore — the rivalry game between Stevensville Lakeshore and St. Joseph — they knew what they were getting into when they took the jobs, but … still.

Rivalry games are a different breed, altogether.

Veteran coach Andrew Pratley, in his first year on the sideline for the St. Joseph Bears, is finding that out on the fly.

“I knew of the rivalry before I got here, but not the depth of it.   It is a a huge deal to the community,” said Pratley, who was a head coach at Holland and Ogemaw Heights before coming to St. Joseph, and grew up as the son of a longtime assistant coach at Frankfort. “Having been involved in some good rivalries as a player and a coach you certainly are aware of these games on your calendar.  This is probably bigger than all of those.  This rivalry runs deep. I am excited to be a part of it.  … I have joked that if I had a dollar for every time I have heard “Beat Lakeshore”, I would likely be able to retire.”

His new boss, St. Joseph athletic director Kevin Guzzo, made sure that Pratley had a good idea of the magnitude of this rivalry — played 62 previous times over the last 57 years — but it’s still something to live through it. 

“I think he knows that, because when we stated introducing him to the community, to the school district, I would say one out of five people would end their conversation with, ‘And don’t forget — you gotta beat Lakeshore,’” Guzzo said Friday afternoon. “So I think he understands.” 

Still …

“Actually, (Thursday), he did come in and say ‘What’s it REALLY like? Tell me what the game’s really like.’ I said ‘It’s crazy. You’ve never experienced this.’ And he agreed. It’s just — it’s a different feel, from the pregame,” Guzzo continued. “But he did look at me and say ‘What can I expect?’ I said ‘If you win this game, you could probably be superintendent and mayor Saturday morning. If you lose this game … you may want to take a weekend vacation.’ Now, I say that very much with humor, but … in my opinion, it’s taken too seriously. It’s a high school football game. There’s not one coach or student athlete out there, trying to lose. Everybody’s going to go out there and try their best. On a given night, I always say it’s not the best team that wins, it’s the team that plays the best. Whoever plays best wins the game, and kudos to them.”

For the last seven seasons, that’s been Lakeshore, which came into Friday’s game leading the all-time series 33-29. For the seniors at St. Joseph, it’s a trend they’d love to reverse. If they do, the Anchor Trophy will go in the front trophy case, just outside the athletic office. 

“I used to joke that we could go 1-8, and if we beat Lakeshore, most people would be happy. That’s obviously not what we want. Lakeshore’s had our number, to be honest. So, in talking to seniors this morning, and in our first lunch — they want to leave a legacy of ‘We beat Lakeshore,’ and try to set up the future. It is important, because our student athletes don’t want it to be another year, and unfortunately we weren’t successful. So, yeah, they want to leave their legacy and have kids talk about it,” Guzzo said, noting that it’s already been a successful fall, with girls golf and boys soccer teams ranked in the top 10 in the state. 

“Right now … we have a great culture going, there’s great sportsmanship, a great vibe. If we win this game — fair or unfair — it’s just going to get that much better. Maybe that’s a little too much pressure for high school kids, but it comes with the territory with this game. … 

“When football’s winning, because it’s such a community event, it feels like everybody feeds off that a little bit, so if we were able to reclaim that trophy tonight, it would just add to the fall we’re having.”

On the other side of the rivalry, coach Bryan Keim knows all about this particular rivalry. He’s in his sixth season as the head coach at Lakeshore, after two years as the Lancers’ defensive coordinator — serving an apprenticeship under then-head coach Denny Dock, the Hall of Famer — following a stint at St. Joe as the Bears’ secondary coach.

“The rivalry is the same on both sides. I was fortunate to coach with (former St. Joe coach) Elliot Uzelac and learn a great deal about football and coaching. But once I got hired at Lakeshore I was not treated the same in St. Joe and found out very quickly that teaching in St Joe and coaching in Lakeshore was not something the administration would allow me to do.  So my family made the move and it was the best thing that ever happened. The Lancer community fits my personality and believes about hard work and earning everything you get. I loved my time at St. Joe but wouldn’t change a thing,” Keim said. “Following coach Dock and working to maintain the level of excellence he set is a very difficult but fun challenge. Being able to coach with him for his last two years really allowed me to not only bring my style of coaching into our culture but allowed me to learn about Lancer football.”

When Dock was hired at Lakeshore in 1988, St. Joe had dominated the series for its first few decades — to the point where he thought the Lancer administration didn’t think beating St. Joe was possible. 

Dock changed all that, going 24-8 against St. Joe in 26 seasons, including a 17-game winning streak at one point. That made it all the harder when Lakeshore athletic director Greg Younger — one of Dock’s former players at Dowagiac — had to find a replacement for Dock, when he was nearing the end of his tenure earlier this decade. 

“It was difficult. Obviously, we planned for it. We never expected the year he did that, for it to happen that year. He came in my office one day, and shut the door, sat down in front of me, and put his keys on my desk. Prior to that, we’d talked a lot about ‘Hey, we’d like to get someone involved in our program, kind of let them test the waters,’ and that’s kind of how we handled it with Bryan. … That’s a tough job for someone to do, to step in and be the next person,” Younger said, noting that Keim has never really struggled to be the guy replacing a legend, in part because Dock is still around, as the Lakeshore softball coach.

“One of the things that’s unique about this place is that a lot of the coaches that have been so instrumental in building the programs, they’re still around here.  … That’s the unique thing about here is that coach Dock still talks with Bryan all the time, and I know Bryan relies on him for some different things, and a sounding board. When you’re a coach, sometimes the room gets pretty empty. And for them to be able to talk with one another, and share what’s gone on here, and the traditions that have been done, that’s a pretty special opportunity.”

Keim may have known what he was getting into, but for Younger, the War by the Shore rivalry was an eye-opener in his first year on the job at AD.

“It was very fast. This is a funny story, because the first year, I’m getting ready, and our principal was Bill Scaletta, and he kept telling me, ‘Hey, toward the end of the day, we need to get out in the parking lot, to make sure there’s nobody tailgating out there during school.’ I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ We went out, and we took a walk behind the school, and sure enough, there were some people behind the school, grilling out — it was probably 1:30, and school gets out at 2:35. So we had to tell them, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta wait at least until school gets over.’ He’s like ‘You’ve gotta lock up the stadium, because people try to get in and set up blankets,’” Younger recalled. “The magnitude of it, for me, (hit home) when there was an airplane with a banner going around the stadium. I’m thinking, ‘Holy cow! What did I get myself into here?’ There was probably 8-10,000 people there. That was my first year, which was 10 years ago now. The rivalry was really heated up at that time. … That was when I knew the magnitude of a high school football game, with a plane and a banner flying around.”