We’re halfway through the summer “vacation” of high school sports. And even on the summer break there are teams that are working out, holding camps, scrimmaging, maybe even practicing (cough cough).
A few things have happened in a busy June and July heading in to the 2015-16 sports season that simply can’t be ignored by my opinionated self.
Benton Harbor leaves the Big 8/Big 16/SMAC
Hey. I still call it the Big 8, because that’s how I grew up with it. I was attending St. Joe games with my parents as long as I can remember. I remember going to St. Joe games back when Holland was in the Big 8 at the Holland Municipal Stadium. So I’ve been around this league for my entire life.
Well, Holland left in 1984, in comes Benton Harbor in 1985.
I was introduced to Benton Harbor football that fall when they beat St. Joe 20-6. That loss was the last regular season loss St. Joe would suffer for the next 37 regular season games. As a student at St. Joe, a lightning strike at the stadium blew some transformers on a Friday in October where St. Joe was going to play Benton Harbor that night. The game on Saturday with Benton Harbor winning 27-15.
Benton Harbor won the last game at the old Dickinson Stadium in St. Joe, beating the Bears 28-27 in overtime. Stopping St. Joe on the 2 point conversion attempt to close out the stadium.
Benton Harbor won their first game at the new Dickinson Stadium.
But for all of those wins I remember against my beloved Bears back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, they’ve become few and far between on the football field, they are rare on the volleyball court, the softball and baseball diamonds, around the track, the wrestling mat, the golf course, tennis courts, and for a while on the soccer field.
We all know about the Benton Harbor boys and girls basketball teams, but not everybody plays basketball, not everybody wants to play basketball. Hoops is a huge part of the tradition of Benton Harbor sports. But at most there are only 30 players in the entire school that play on the girls and boys varsity teams (15 per team).
Benton Harbor’s success on the basketball court comes from stability in the feeder programs, it comes from development of players as kids. Those kids grew up watching Benton Harbor win consistently in basketball, they’ve never known that success in any other sports.
That’s where the Tigers leaving the SMAC is the best thing for every student athlete at Benton Harbor.
Benton Harbor’s new Assistant Superintendent said basically they were OK in basketball and getting the snot kicked out of them in football. It’s hard to argue with that. The SMAC Conference is one of the best football conferences in the state. Powerhouses like St. Joe, Lakeshore, Niles, Portage Central and Portage Northern. Those five schools are in the same division as Benton Harbor so they would be playing them every year. Then add Battle Creek Lakeview and a resurgent Battle Creek Central team on the Tigers schedule. Not to mention an up and coming team like Gull Lake and rival Kalamazoo Central. It’s hard to turn a program around when you’re going up against the biggest and best every week. There just isn’t the time to learn and improve because you’re going up against an overwhelming opponent every week.
In a perfect world. Benton Harbor would go to the Wolverine and Edwardsburg would go to the SMAC, but this isn’t a perfect world and the way things change so frequently in terms of conference changes, there is no guarantee
The Fred Smith/Elliot Uzelac Era
Now that things are calming down and some decisions have been made about the future of sports at Benton Harbor and most notably the football team. It’s now just a matter of letting things play out.
Buchanan AD Fred Smith comes back to Benton Harbor nearly to lead the Tigers out of the SMAC Conference and into whatever conference, The BCS or the Wolverine are the two most likely places for the Tigers, or maybe independence. Either way, it’s the change of direction that could be the turning point to save the Tigers athletic program.
Smith has been an Athletic Director for 30 years, at LMC, Comstock, and Buchanan, and is the Vice President of the MHSAA Representative Council. If anybody knows how to lead an athletic program it would be Fred.
You can tell that in just his very first act as AD… Hiring Elliot Uzelac has the head coach. Uzelac, the former head coach at St. Joe, steps in to turn around a program that has gone 0-9 each of the last two seasons. He provides some stability and experience in a position that the Tigers have been lacking since Larry Featherstone’s departure after the 2006 season.
Since the 2007 season there have been 5 different men in charge of the Tigers football program. Maurice Burton started in 2007 and went 0-9 in each of his two seasons at the helm. Former St. Joe Assistant Larry Jackson came in starting in 2009, he had three straight 1-8 seasons before leaving after the 2011 season. In comes Darrick Randolph for 2012 and another 1-8 campaign. Randolph’s second year, the Tigers finished 0-9. Right before the 2014 season, Randolph abruptly stepped down because his job changed and was unable to continue as head coach. Mike Gillespie and Randy Jones stepped in at the last minute to be co-interim head coaches.
That doesn’t even to begin to talk about the turnover in the JV and Freshman levels… that is when they had them.
Uzelac’s first issue is to shore up the junior levels and the Tigers feeder system. The incoming players are where the Tiger turnaround will begin to happen. I’m not saying that the current Tigers aren’t going to be successful. But, the late timing of Uzelac’s hiring puts Benton Harbor already behind everybody in terms of preseason workouts, camps, passing leagues, film study, offensive and defensive schemes.
Another issue that will have to be solved for Uzelac is the lack of a consistent kicking game. Special teams are 1/3 of the factors in the game and when your offense stalls you punt, and then if you can’t flip the field, then the Tigers defense will be working with a short field for the opposing offense. That’s nothing to say about PAT’s, field goals, and kickoffs.
The SMAC West is one of the toughest divisions in the state. If you need a reminder of who is in the SMAC-West. St. Joseph, Lakeshore, Niles, Portage Central, Portage Northern. So the Tigers will probably take a few lumps this season in their final season in the conference, but I don’t think Benton Harbor will go 0-9.
And Uzelac has done this before, when he took over the St. Joseph in 2006, St. Joe had just come off an 0-9 season. The Bears went 6-5 that season, including a playoff berth.
If this was the Oscars, we’d have to have a moment to remember those conferences that are no longer with us. Funny thing is two of the conferences that we lost have their roots going back to the old Blossomland Conference.
We said goodbye to the Lakeland Conference and the St. Joe Valley League after the 2013-14 school year. The two league’s make up most of what is the now BCS Conference.
This year we remember the Red Arrow Conference and the Kalamazoo Valley Athletic Association (KVA).
The Red Arrow Conference was nearly left for dead after the 2002 season when four schools left. It was dealt another blow in 2004 when Galien closed its doors, but Covert came in to leave the league with 4 schools. The conference received an infusion of new life when they briefly combined with the St. Joe Valley in 2008 and 2009. Then in 2010 River Valley and Michigan Lutheran entered and the league seemed to be on strong footing again. But that didn’t last long, Covert stopped playing football and Michigan Lutheran started playing 8 man football.
The formation of the BCS took what was left of the Red Arrow Conference and gave everyone a chance to say one final goodbye.
How much longer will there be a separate SMAC and Wolverine Conference?
103 Years, 100 Seasons
This is a special milestone season for in the history of the St. Joseph football program. It’s the 100th season of football in the school’s history. St. Joe first fielded a high school team in 1913, but this is the actual 100th season. The reason being is that St. Joe did not field a team in 1916, 1917, and 1918. World War I and a world outbreak of influenza caused the school to pause the football program.
The school is marking this season with some special events, including an alumni game this weekend. Two teams of former St. Joe players will be drafted by the two team coaches, the aforementioned Uzelac and Ike Muhlenkamp. There is an actual draft taking place before the game.
The school has a commemorative logo for the season. They’ll also hold a special ceremony during their homecoming game against Benton Harbor in October, which will be against Uzelac.
Looking forward to seeing the new Lancer Gym/Softball Field
If you’ve kept up to date on the work being done at Lakeshore High School this summer, you know about two projects that are taking place at two of the school’s athletic facilities. Lakeshore’s softball field with an artificial turf field, including the “dirt infield” and the remodel of the Lakeshore gym.
The softball field is part of a $1.5 million dollar privately funded donation to the softball team, and like the football field turf project, the Kohn name is attached to it with the name Betty Kohn Field.
Lakeshore’s undersized gym has been updated with a new floor, new bleachers on each side, greatly expanding the seating capacity in one of the smallest gym’s in the league.
Lancer fans will get to see the new gym when volleyball takes the floor this fall, but fans will have to wait until next spring to see the softball field’s first game.