By Ben Murphy
Last year was business as usual for the Clare football team. A 7-3 record. An undefeated Jack Pine Conference record and a playoff appearance. 27th year head coach Kelly Luplow is hoping business booms again this year.
“We lost a lot of quality talent from last year’s team, just like it seems we do every year,” he said. “We’re going through growing pains right now in early season practices but we feel like we’ll eventually get it all together and be competitive every Friday night. We have a lot of work to do still.”
Returning from last year’s team that lost to Reed City in the first round of the playoffs are seniors Charlie Bugbee (wide receiver), Ryan Seiter (quarterback, defensive back), Zach Betzer (running back, linebacker), Devin Ayers (wide receiver, defensive back), Paul Cole (tight end, defensive end), Chuck Zinser (tight end, middle linebacker), Brendan Gyulzeszi (linebacker, guard), Steven Bentley (guard), Tyler Gillespie (defensive end, offensive tackle), Alyx Thayer (tackle), Kodie Kane (center), Brenden Hensley (tackle), Jay Poet (tight end, wide receiver), Joe Huston (wide receiver, defensive back) and junior kicker Camden Dice.
“We have guys that are going to step up and be leaders and players for us,” Luplow said. “They need to step up, otherwise we’ll struggle. We’re starting to pull together as a team and we have some good team chemistry. The sooner we build that team concept the better we’re going to be.
“Our team strength is probably our first line of players is pretty solid,” Luplow added. “We’re pretty decent up front and we have some tam speed. Our down point is we just don’t have a lot of depth in certain positions.”
New to the team are seniors Zack Brockway (defensive tackle), Antonio Bastuba (wide receiver, defensive back), Will Bolberg (running back, defensive back), juniors Ben Bates (running back, linebacker), Zach Merchant (wide receiver, defensive back), Alex Dysinger (running back, linebacker), Eric Wezensky (tackle), Matt Mester (guard), Bailey Tocco (tackle), John Franko (tackle), Trevor Hubbard (tackle), Chris Pomroy (center), Max Swan (tackle) and sophomores Gabe Denton (linebacker, running back) and Travis Vida (quarterback).
Competition for playing time will be extensive, as several players are close at each position.
“We have two quarterbacks (Vida, Seiter) that have strengths at different things and they’re both going to get a lot of playing time,” Luplow said. “We don’t know how that situation is going to iron out. A lot of guys are working for positions for the season but we don’t have anything set in stone yet. We have so many guys so close to being players, they just have to keep working hard. If they do that they’ll have an opportunity to get a lot of playing time. Everybody is capable of being a player this year.”
The Pioneers are hoping their simple game plan continues to translate into a good amount of wins.
“Every year our team goal is to get better each week, right from the beginning of practice to the end of the season,” Luplow said. “If we do that, we’ll be fine. Of course playoffs and a conference championship is too. If we do well in league we’ll be in the playoffs, they kind of go hand-in-hand.”
Doing well in league is something the Pioneers are more than familiar with, coming off seven straight league titles and have won 26 conference games in a row.
“We’re the hunted in our league, we have to be on the top of our game every week because the teams out there are ready to get us and we know that,” Luplow said. “We do stress we have a target on our back but it just means we have to play our best every game and be our best every week because of the success we’ve had. It’s fun in a way, we know that everyone is going to play their best game against us. We know that we’re circled on everybody’s calender and that’s OK. I’d rather have it that way than have it the other way around we’re everybody’s homecoming game.”
There appears to be a host of challengers in the JPC this year. Many coaches have commented on just how even the league could be.
“I think we’re going to have to play our best game every week this year if we’re to have a chance at the title, all eight schools are pretty even,” Luplow said. “Harrison is going to be right up there, they had a couple nice junior varsity teams and some nice guys back from last year’s varsity team. Meridian has been up there the last few years and they’ll continue to be there, Farwell has a new coach so you never know what’s going to happen there… It’s just one of those things where there’s a lot of question marks. All I know is it’s going to be a battle this year for sure.”
Clare opens its season with a steep test against non-league Ithaca at home on Friday, Aug. 29. The Yellow Jackets have won the last four division six state titles and have the nation’s longest winning streak at 56 games.
“It’s going to be a playoff environment,” Luplow said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. If you’re going to play a team like this you want to play them in the beginning of the season because they’re still going through their growing pains and making their changes too.
“I don’t know how it’s going to end but it’s going to be fun taking on that challenge,” Luplow added. “The 30 guys on our team and our coaching staff are the only ones who believe we have a chance. I tell people if we get beat, everybody expects it anyway. If we win it’s the biggest upset in the state of Michigan. We have nothing to lose but all kinds of things to gain.”