MENDON — All signs point towards a 26th St. Joseph Valley league championship for the 2013 installment of Mendon High School football. The tradition-rich conference took a massive hit when a mass exodus in 2008 left just four teams. The final blow will be delivered at the end of this season when the Hornets, Centreville, White Pigeon and Bronson join the Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Athletic Conference (B-C-S) in 2014, joining Niles-Brandywine, Bridgman, Buchanan, Cassopolis, New Buffalo and Lake Michigan Catholic.
Mendon, stalking its seventh consecutive league title and 15th under head coach John Schwartz, won its first back in 1955. Schwartz and Co. rattled off 11 straight wins last season before being cut down by Muskegon Catholic Central in a Division 8 regional final. Having gone six seasons without a loss in the SJV, it’s going to be a tall task for any of the other three schools to regain the throne.
A defense that surrendered just 15 points in three conference contests in 2012 returns mostly intact. And even with a few new faces on an offense that averaged 35.4 points per game last fall (10th in program history) and 352 yards, the Hornets are set up to keep rolling.
“We have a lot of those kids back that played on last year’s team,” Schwartz said. “We lost three regular defensive players, and again, Nick Eberstein (senior quarterback last season and all-state selection at defensive back) was a big one there. But a lot of the kids are back.”
By the third practice of the season, most of the defensive details were installed and digested.
“We got in all of our base defense and stunts in one day,” Schwartz added. “We have a lot of our defense, in terms of teaching, in. Now it is just drills. I don’t think we’ve ever been able to do that. We have a pretty alert group and they’re anxious to get started.”
Mendon gave up only 1,226 yards (111.45 per contest) in 2012 and had six interceptions and forced four fumbles. Senior linebacker Darek Zagon made 90 tackles (8.2 per game) last season, and junior two-way lineman Logan Slaughter and senior defensive end Kyle Weswell are expected to be extremely disruptive this fall.
Zagon is back on an offensive line that also includes stalwart juniors Cole Harrison (6-foot, 195 pounds) and Slaughter (6-3, 240). They’ll block mostly for junior quarterback Jordan Medich, Eberstein’s replacement and first cousin, and halfbacks Elijah Klepper (junior) and Danny Cleveland (senior).
“Nick Eberstein is just a great kid, great leader, and he shocked us with how well he played last year,” Schwartz said of his graduated QB from 2012 that rushed for 729 yards and passed for most of his 975 career yards. “Because of that we were 11-1.”
So can Medich follow suit?
“I don’t know why not,” Schwartz added. “I think by his senior year he can do that.”
Junior Parker Cupp and senior Robert Riley are expected to receive snaps in certain situations for a Power-I offense that has plenty of wrinkles.
“All three play quarterback depending on the sets we’re in,” Schwartz explained. “We want Medich to be our main quarterback. He’s improved so much. He’s a smart kid, he’s a competitor and he’s a smart athlete. He couldn’t play in junior high and his freshman year because of a knee problem. He had it taken care of and right now he’s playing at his best. I think he’s going to keep getting better and better.”
Perhaps the team’s biggest asset this year is a renewed commitment from the entire roster. A couple key players were suspended multiple times last season, which proved to be a major distraction and detrimental to the program down the stretch.
“We won’t deal with that [crap] anymore,” Schwartz said. “We decided that from now on they’re just gone. And they were quality kids. You’ve always got to be concerned about kids, because kids are kids. But we would really be shocked if we had a problem this year. We don’t have any more problems than anyone else does.
“The feeling around the county is we tolerate that, and that’s why we’re consistently good, because kids can do whatever they want and still play football. It’s not true. [The players] all learned a lesson last year, so did the coaches.”
Because Covert dropped its football program, the Hornets are stuck with an eight-game schedule with an opening in Week 4. It’s nothing new, athletics director and assistant coach Glen Samson said. Few lower-lower division schools are salivating at the opportunity to square off against a perennial state championship contender as part of their nonconference slate. However, he’s still searching for a replacement as the season is set to begin Thursday when fellow state power Fowler visits Mendon.
Though eight games “seems to happen every other year” according to Schwartz, the Hornets have the luxury of five home games this season.
Coach: John Schwartz (248-40 record, 25th year)
2012 records: 11-1 (3-0 SJV, 1st place)
Key players: Derek Zagon (Sr., OL/LB), Robert Riley (Sr., TE/QB/LB), Kyle Weswel (Sr., TE/DE), Logan Slaughter (Jr., OL/DL), Parker Cupp (Jr., WR/QB/DB), Marcus Craft (Sr., WR/DB), Cole Harrison (Jr., OL/DL/LB), Kaleb McCarroll (Sr., TE/DE), Elijah Klepper (Jr., RB/LB), Danny Cleveland (Sr., RB/DL), Carson Ahrens (Sr., OL/DL), Tommy Gifford (Sr., OL/DE), Hunter Stienbarger (Sr., WR/DB).
Aug. 29 FOWLER
Sept. 6 at Cassopolis
Sept. 13 EDGERTON (Ohio)
Sept. 20 Open
Sept. 27 BRONSON
Oct. 4 at Centreville
Oct. 11 WHITE PIGEON
Oct. 18 BUCHANAN
Oct. 26 at Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart