STURGIS — Jimmy Lamb expects his Sturgis High School football players to be disciplined, sportsmanlike and technically sound, but here’s guessing he’ll only feign frustration when the first flag for excessive celebration is tossed on the turf.
Clearly an advocate for fun, Lamb, the team’s former offensive coordinator, was pushed into the conductor’s seat five games into the year after former coach Bill Keim resigned as a result of criticism from some parents and school officials for his alleged abrasive style. He would later return as an assistant as Lamb attempted to keep the program from derailing.
Needing to win three of its final four games to reach the postseason, Sturgis slipped up against Battle Creek Lakeview and Marshall down the stretch. The Trojans were undefeated at home and winless on the road to finish the season 5-4 overall and 4-3 in Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference East Division play (fourth).
But a 35-6 victory over Gull Lake on Oct. 5 was the moment, Lamb recalled, that it truly felt like his team — a message (and imaginary game balls) received by the athletes surrounding him in the locker room that night.
“I did something different [after the Gull Lake game],” Lamb said. “If you walked out of that locker room after we beat Gull Lake and you questioned [who was in charge], then I would question your ability to process [information]. I made it crystal clear.”
Lamb was promoted from interim to full-time head coach last winter and quickly got to work weaving together new offensive ideas and finalizing a mostly fresh-faced coaching staff. Making sure his players squeezed every ounce of joy out of the game under his watch, however, appeared to be a top priority heading into fall practices.
After watching stoic reactions from the offense after scoring plays in the first couple days of practice, Lamb had seen enough. He begged for someone to spike the ball, to show some emotion, to celebrate and shout. He threatened to turn his back on anyone that found the end zone but couldn’t find a way to enjoy it.
“We’re picking the defense apart and score a third touchdown,” Lamb said of an instance in practice. “I blow the whistle and said, ‘If you don’t celebrate in practice, you’re walking off the field when you score a touchdown [in a game] with your head down and no high-fives. Nobody’s going to high-five anybody. I want to see some excitement. I said, ‘Listen, if I catch a slant route on a kid and I take it to the house, I’m giving him the ball back and rubbing it in his face.’ I took the ball back and spiked it.
“We are going to learn how to celebrate … we’re going to do it good here. If I know what you’re going to do [in a game] now, then I can say you can’t do that. But we will walk away from you when you score [if there’s no emotion].”
Shortly after Lamb voiced his displeasure with the Trojans’ pleasure-less touchdowns, senior receiver Kalvyn Bowdish (58.1 yards per game last year) caught a touchdown from Western Michigan University-bound quarterback Chance Stewart, darted through the end zone and kept sprinting towards a fence, which he climbed and then kept running a la Forrest Gump.
“If you’re not out here having fun, I’m not sure why you’re out here,” said Lamb, who’s especially aware of the importance of that aspect after a year that wasn’t much fun for anyone. “Let’s just have some fun.”
There is no ceiling for a talented group of returning lettermen and promising newcomers now that the cloud of controversy from last season has seemingly passed. But there are some areas in need of improvement if the Trojans want to make a splash in the league before moving on to the Wolverine Conference in 2014.
Sturgis surrendered a respectable 23.7 points per game last fall, but the 165.2 rushing yards per game allowed is a number in need of a trim. Stewart admits his junior campaign turned out to be an unwelcomed adventure on and off the field, and he’s excited to prove he’s an elite prospect in his final tour of duty.
Stewart didn’t have a ton of help from the receiving corps, but Lamb thinks that group has made considerable strides.
“We’re probably going to be more of a deep-ball team like [Stewart’s] freshman year,” Lamb said. “We’ve spent more time trying to develop receivers’ hands this year. From fingertip pushups to catching bricks, we do a lot of things with our hands. We’re more efficient than we have been. There are still balls that are dropped, but less than we were doing.”
That, and the utilization of multiple tight ends, should pump Stewart’s numbers back up where they belong. Still, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound QB has tallied an impressive 4,525 passing yards and 39 touchdowns in his three years as starter.
“Were going to take a few more opportunities to see what Chance can do,” Lamb said. “Everybody knows he’s a pocket quarterback. I said, ‘I know you’re a pocket quarterback, but I want you to run the ball. I don’t want you to run the ball 20 times a game. I want you to run the ball five times and they’re going to be five big plays because [the defense isn’t] ready.’ We’ve kind of adopted a semi-zone and zone-read concept.
“He’s more athletic than some would think. He can do what he needs to do. He’s going to break a big one. He’s probably one of the strongest ones on the team. Pound for pound, Chance can hold his own. It’s going to keep teams honest.”
Matt Phillips, a 235-pound senior, moves from fullback to primary ball carrier this season behind an experienced offensive line anchored by seniors Luke Kinsey (center) and Matt Davis (guard). Senior Max Maher and junior J.D. Bowdish have proved to be more than capable of spelling Phillips, who’s a bruiser with deceptive speed, throughout the year. Junior Jack Caywood and Jack Scheske add to the receiving depth, as have Austin Layman, Zach Matthews and L.A. Vasquez. To top things off, Sturgis welcomed Three Rivers transfer Core Baldwin, a speedy senior that has the potential to lead the team in receiving yards this season.
Junior Cole D’Haese and senior Luke Summey return on the defensive line, but the Trojans are pretty inexperienced at linebacker with Phillips (team-high 46 tackles) the only starter back in 2013. Kalvyn Bowdish and Caywood are again tasked to control traffic through the air at defensive back.
The Trojans turned the ball over 19 times compared to their opponents’ 29 giveaways and were perfectly balanced offensively, averaging 147.4 rushing and passing yards per game. An offense that had 71 more plays than its opponents (511-439) expects to move at a faster pace this fall, even giving pro-style Stewart a chance to run the read-option.
“We have the personnel to accomplish [a league title],” Lamb said. “But we need to put all the pieces together. I feel our greatest area of need from last year would be improving our red-zone scoring. We really fell short in that area.”
Coach: Jimmy Lamb (2-2 record, 2nd year)
2012 records: 5-4 (4-3 SMAC East, 4th place)
Key players: Chance Stewart (Sr., QB/DB), Matt Phillips (Sr., RB/LB), Luke Summey (Sr., TE/DE), Matt Davis (Sr., OL/DT), Adam Yunker (Sr., TE/DT), Kalvyn Bowdish (Sr., WR/DB), Jack Caywood (Jr., WR/DB), Jacab Haas (TE/LB), Cole D’Hase (Jr., OL/NT), Morgan Sahli (Jr., OL/NT), Jack Scheske (Jr., WR/OL), Luke Kinsey (Sr., C/LB), Danny Arroyo (Sr., OL/DT), Core Baldwin (Sr., WR/DB), JD Bowdish (Jr., RB/DB), Tyler Cain (So., LB).
Aug. 29 PORTAGE CENTRAL
Sept. 6: at Niles
Sept. 13 at Gull Lake
Sept. 20 MARSHALL
Sept. 27 at Coldwater
Oct. 4 HARPER CREEK
Oct. 11 at Battle Creek Central
Oct. 18 at Loy Norrix
Oct. 25 LAKEVIEW