RIVALS SERIES: Almont stays focused, starts fast in win over rival Armada, setting up showdown for BWAC title
ALMONT — To be a head football coach at the high school level, you have to be good at a lot of things.
You have to be good with X’s and O’s, certainly, along with delegating responsibility, resolving conflicts, acting as both confidante and disciplinarian, and a myriad of other management skills.
Oh, and sometimes, you have to play the boogeyman to motivate your troops.
Rather than risk getting caught in a ‘trap’ game by overlooking a longtime rival that they’d beaten 14 straight times, Almont head coach James Leusby kept harping on his Raiders that the Armada Tigers were not a team to be taken lightly.
The Raiders listened, and came roaring out of the gates in Friday’s homecoming game, ripping off three touchdowns in their first 15 plays, and rolling up 399 rushing yards in a 48-14 win.
“We’re sort of used to starting like that, but last week, we came out kind of soft. This week, we came out and hit them in the face a little bit,” said running back Jack Paupert, who finished with 103 yards and a touchdown in the win that left Almont (6-0, 5-0 BWAC) unbeaten. “It’s been great. Practice is fun this year. It’s been fun, coming out, playing hard. Our fans are crazy, so it’s fun playing in front of all these guys.”
The rivalry with Armada dates back to at least World War II — and likely longer — and has lasted through a succession of league changes — from the Little Six to the Southern Thumb Athletic Association to the Blue Water Area Conference — as a constant on both teams’ schedules. It’s also one that has families with members on both sides.
“We’ve been looking forward to the game. I’ve got family in Armada. We knew it was going to be a battle, but we came out, played Almont football, and got the ‘W,’” said Colby Schapman, who caught a pair of first-half touchdown passes from Josh Hellebuyck, as the Raiders won to set up a de facto BWAC championship game against unbeaten Richmond next week.
“Coach really stresses that we just focus on this week, and not look forward to the next game until we’re done with this one. We finished here and got the win, and now we’re looking forward to Richmond. It’s going to be a big game. … Playoffs are always our goal — we keep that streak alive, but our goal is we want to win the BWAC, and next week is a big part of that.”
The win got the Raiders to the six victories that — until next year’s rule change — marks automatic entry into the playoffs. Almont has made the postseason each of the last nine seasons, and 12 times in 13 years. The Raiders aren’t satisfied yet, though.
“No, not at all. We’re looking to take the BWAC championship next week, going to 9-0, and then going all the way to states,” Hellebuyck said. “That’s our goal.”
Richmond (6-0, 5-0 BWAC) beat North Branch, 14-7, to set up the league title showdown, and the Raiders were itching to start preparing.
“They already asked right now — they asked when the film’s going to be up there, so they can start breaking it down,” Leusby said with a grin.
Almont beat North Branch, 61-20, in Week 4, in an other emotional matchup with the squad run by former head coach Jeremy Ferman, but then had a little bit of a hangover to start their Week 5 game against Croswell-Lexington.
“It was big for us to have a good start right off the bat, because last week, we came out and were really flat after a big game against North Branch, and so that’s what we stressed all week: ‘We’ve gotta start fast, and we’ve gotta finish,’” said Leusby, whose team ran up 210 yards of offense in the first quarter and 370 in the first half. “We didn’t finish the way we wanted to, but we got a lot of third-strings in there, got them a lot of time.”
Mason Smith ripped off a 48-yard touchdown run to put Almont up 7-0, then after a punt by Armada (2-4), needed just two plays to span 85 yards, making it 15-0 when Paupert ran in the 2-point conversion after a 38-yard touchdown pass from Hellebuyck to Schapman.
That passing combination would hook up again for a 20-yard score to make it 22-0 with 9.3 seconds left in the first quarter.
Almont recovered a squibbed kickoff, and made it 29-0 on Paupert’s 28-yard touchdown run just 15 seconds and three plays into the second quarter.
For the Armada Tigers, it was sort of like trying to slow down an avalanche with their bare hands.
“We talked — they’re a talented team, and we struggled to get off blocks, and they blocked well. When you do that, and you have numbers, you’re at a disadvantage,” Armada coach Todd Stump said. “They hit some big pass plays on us, and we misread some stuff, and you get points quick. I think when the kids played the scheme in the second half, things got better.”
Jacob Castillo ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run on the second play of Almont’s next drive, then Hellebuyck threw his third touchdown pass of the first half on the next drive, finding Jackson Malcom in the flat, and watching the big tight end rumble into the end zone from 22 yards out.
By that point, the Raiders were already starting to sprinkle in backups.
“We’re pretty strong offensively. We really haven’t even had a chance to open up our playbook a little bit, to be honest with you. It’s five or six plays, and we’re scoring. Tonight we, came out and showed we could run spread a little bit, because we’ve never (showed it), because we’ve been up by so much right off the bat,” said Leusby, admitting it’s tempting to pull out some of the gadget plays they’ve worked on. “Well, yeah. The kids have been practicing them all week, and you want them to have fun and do it. Sometimes, you go to what you know to get going, and you look, and you’re up three touchdowns, and you go ‘Well, geez, do you actually go and pull those out now?’ Or do you keep them in your pocket for next week?”
Neither team scored in the second half until the game had less than one minute remaining.
Almont’s Charlie Koenig ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run on a simple dive play with 42.5 seconds left.
Armada’s Eric Keding — who’d closed out the first-half scoring with a 59-yard touchdown pass to Joshua Bowman, and finished with 208 yards through the air — tossed a 22-yard scoring pass to Connor Mackenzie with 14.3 seconds left.
“We’d get a good thing going, and then a bad thing would happen. You drop a ball, you miss a block on a run play, and it gets thrown for a loss — that stuff happens. That kills drives, that kills momentum. They’ve got a good team, and when you have those struggles, it’s going to be hard to get that momentum again. But I think the kids fought extremely hard, stayed together. That was good to see the kids continue to fight, not get negative, not start pointing fingers, start blaming — that’s a good sign, a good sign of character,” said Stump, agreeing that the late scoring pass was something to build on. “It’s the same idea. It builds momentum, it shows kids there’s good things there. It’s something to build on. We have an opportunity, if we do well, and continue to focus, that we could end up at 5-4, and then the playoffs are a possibility — you need some luck, and you need to get the point system going there. It gives them some hope, it gives them something to feel good about, and to continue to build next week. They don’t feel so ground into the dirt.”