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RIVALS SERIES: Armada tries to snap skid in generations-old southern Thumb rivalry with Almont

By: MATTHEW B. MOWERY, October 3, 2019, 4:24 pm

The strength and depth of a rivalry isn’t as much measured by the win-loss records of the two teams. 

Rather it’s measured by how much each of the participants fears that the other — even if they haven’t had success against them in a while — might suddenly jump up and bite them. 

Almont has won each of the last 14 meetings against long-time rival Armada, but the Raiders certainly aren’t resting on their laurels, assuming that will continue when they meet again Friday. 

“That’s definitely the case here. Coach (James) Leusby, he’s been telling the kids for weeks now, you can’t sleep on Armada. They’re a sleeping giant, and they can jump up and bite you. We can’t just expect people to roll over, just because we’ve had the upper hand for however long. I know they’re gunning for us,” said Almont junior varsity coach Jeff Bacholzky. “I think Armada’s on the way back up, just looking at their youth programs. … We’re expecting a tough game.”

The rivalry game between the two schools — one in southern Lapeer County, and the other in northern Macomb County, separated by just less than 13 miles of farmland in the southern reaches of the Thumb — is set for Friday night at Almont, where the Raiders (5-0) will celebrate homecoming. 

“Yeah, they’re due. They’re waiting. I know they’ve been marking — everybody in the (Blue Water Area Conference) marks us on their calendar. They’re going to come with everything they’ve got Friday night,” Leusby said. “They’ve got some great athletes over there, and they’ve just gotta put it all together. It just takes one Friday night for them to be clicking, and be on par with everything they’re doing, and get the momentum. Once you get the momentum in high school football, it’s tough to turn it around.”

For the Armada Tigers (2-3) it is a shot at making a bit of history. Armada hasn’t beaten Almont since 2004, the last year the Tigers made the playoffs. 

“The big rivalry for Armada is Richmond, but you think about Almont, and Almont’s always that competitive team. Our kids know that we can go do something special. We really can. It’s a 14-game win streak for Almont that you can be a part of the end that. That’s a huge thing for us — not only ending the streak, which would be huge for us — but at the same time, that’s a really quality, quality program. And if we can battle, and compete, and come out with the victory, that tells us we’re moving in the right direction. It would be a huge builder for us,” fifth-year Armada head coach Todd Stump said. “In my time here, Almont has been an incredible program. They’ve been through a coaching change, and they didn’t miss a beat. They’ve built something special, and it just continues to build. You look at a model of being that way, year-in and year-out, and that’s a great model to have. …

“Almont, you’ve really got to give them a lot of respect, not only for what they do, but how they do it. … You hate playing against them, because of the quality they are, but at the same time, you have to respect what they do. …

“We look at Almont, and at a lot of the things they do, and a lot of the things they do are what we’re trying to do, and build. It’s a huge measuring stick for us.”

It’s the fourth stop on our Rivals Series tour around the state, and will be the subject of an extended highlights package you can find on all our social media channels later in the weekend. 

And, like many of the previous stops, it’ll be a small slice of Americana, towns and schools where families put down deep roots, and have generation after generation playing for the same school colors.

“When I first started coaching here, (the rivalry) was a lot bigger back when (Gary) Carson was coaching this program. Carson and their coaches — they went to battle back then. It hasn’t really been that close the last couple of years, but it’s still been one of those traditions that’s been carried on. We’ve been playing for almost 70 years now. Our communities are about the same size. A lot of my players have family from Armada,” Leusby said. “Our kids grew up together. They played travel baseball together. They see each other in basketball leagues all summer. They watch to see what we do, we watch to see what they do, and when it comes, it’s the old orange and black, and who’s going to triumph. It’s a good rivalry. It’s Friday Night Football in a small town — you can’t get any better than Friday Night Football in a small town.”

These two small towns have been playing forever, too.

A history buff, Bacholzky isn’t sure exactly when Armada and Almont first played, but has narrowed down when the Raiders first started playing football, back in 1910.

“The rivalry, as far as I know, goes as far back and my grandfather, and probably earlier than that. Just having talks with my grandfather, that was one of the biggest rivals,” Bacholzky said, noting that in his grandfather’s senior year (1944), Almont won the Little Six. “My grandfather (Frank) ended up teaching and coaching at Almont. My dad (also Frank) and his (twin) brother (John) played at Almont — so they ended up playing against Armada, ’66, ’67, ’68. I kind of grew up in it, because my uncle coached here, my grandpa taught and coached here. My grandpa always talked about the rivalry. Ed Wuestenberg was the Armada coach, and Gary Carson was my coach when I played here, and they kind of had a ‘Bo and Woody’ thing going on in the ‘70s and ‘80s. … They kind of had that rivalry. He (Carson) had a healthy respect for the rivalry, but they butted heads. They had many close games, that determined who was going to end up winning the STA.”

The two programs have remained joined at the hip, from the days in the Little 6, to the Southern Thumb Athletic Association, to now in the BWAC.

And it wasn’t just Wuestenberg and Carson who carried the coaching flag for the two schools. 

Bacholzky’s grandfather played for Bill Waytulonis, who led the Raiders to Little Six titles in football, basketball and baseball in Frank Bacholzky’s senior year. Dr. Jerry Laycock led Almont in the 1950s, then went on to a Hall of Fame career at Kingston, while Jack Johnson coached Bacholzky’s father in his two seasons in Almont, before heading out to Montana where he won 13 state titles as that state’s winningest coach.

Carson was inducted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame in 1993, six years after Wuestenberg was inducted.

Since 1950, Almont leads the series, 40-28, thanks largely to that bump over the last decade plus. Before that, it had always been a relatively even playing field. 

“Even years where one team was down, you could look at the scores, and it was still a close game. I think I counted 38 of the 68 years that are available online (at at least one of the two finished in the top two, and there were six or seven years where they finished 1-2. There were a lot of great games over the years,” Bacholzky said. “Personally, my first year playing football when I was in seventh grade, we played against Armada and had just a nailbiter, and ended up winning on the final play of the game. In eighth grade, we ended up losing the game like that. So getting into high school, that was the rivalry for me.”

For some, the branches of the family tree end up extending across the lines of the rivalry.

“My parents graduated from Armada — I couldn’t even tell you when. I’ve played against cousins. My family’s from the Berville/Armada area on my dad’s side. I’ve played against cousins, coached against cousins, so it does add a little something, because we’re close,” said Almont defensive coordinator Ritchie Feys. “Dad (Robert) played for Armada and his brothers. … My mom was an Armada lady. My grandparents grew up in Armada.”

Feys played in the rivalry on the opposite side his dad had, beginning his association with Almont football as a youngster.

“I was a manager for Gary Carson, back in probably 1980, and then I started playing for him in ’85. I coached with Gary, and then after he retired, I continued to coach. I’ve seen it from 10 years old and up. Somehow, some way, other than when I was away at school,” Feys said. “It says a lot when former students come back and teach and coach. Almont’s always had something along those lines. I was probably the first one (that played for Carson) to come back and coach.”

Armada has many of the same longstanding family associations. 

Armada’s defensive coordinator, Nick Ehrke, and receivers coach Mike Denoyer both played for the Tigers, then returned to coach in Armada. And, even though he’s not originally from the town where he coaches now, Stump came from a similar setting: He was a fourth-generation player in high school at Portland. 

With the recession over, and housing going up again, both communities are getting an influx of newcomers from the south, blending with that old blood.

“People are moving up, and so you have this cool mix of old blood, and brand-new people that don’t know a lot about Armada, but want to be here, and want to help,” Stump said. “It’s a cool mix.”

But it hasn’t changed the small-town feel.

“It’s just two close-knit towns, about the same size,” Feys said. “Other than the city people that move this way, I know about everybody. I can’t go to the local grocery store, without (running into people). My wife just sits there and says ‘Come on!’ But that’s the small town in it. Then it turns into a parent-teacher conference, if it’s a student. But that’s the neat part about it. I don’t want it any other way. I went to a small college for that reason. I wanted to know everybody. I didn’t want to be lost in 30,000 students.”