THREE RIVERS — Three Rivers High School football coach J.J. Wagner likens each season to a latter, with the focus solely on the next rung. With the loss of 28 seniors and only three home games on the slate in 2013, the distance between each rung is a little greater.
But entering his 10th year overseeing Wildcats football, Wagner will likely figure out how to manage a massive graduation hit and contend for a Wolverine Conference championship. It all starts Thursday when league foe Comstock comes to town to kick off the season.
“We talk about playing one game at a time … our first goal is to prepare for Comstock,” Wagner said. “Every year our goals are to win the Wolverine Conference and make the playoffs.
The Wildcats have qualified for the postseason six times under Wagner’s watch, with their must successful run ending with a 49-28 loss to Marshall in the 2009 Division 4 state final game. They went 5-13 the next two seasons before regrouping in 2012 with an 8-4 record (3-2 in the West Division for third place) and march to the regional finals.
“Last season was a huge turnaround for our program,” Wagner said. “We won a district title and lost to the eventual state champions (Grand Rapids South Christian). Last year our juniors were a big part of that turnaround, and as seniors this year continue to work hard each day to get better.”
They go back to work in a West Division that’s up for grabs, with perhaps Dowagiac the favorite. Edwardsburg and Berrien Springs will also be competitive.
Senior quarterback/defensive end Alex Cottingham should be a steady hand at the controls of the Wildcats offense and hopes retain momentum on defense after earning a first-team All-Wolverine Conference West Division nod. He replaces Sam Shutes, who finished his career with 3,920 passing yards (third most in program history) and is currently on scholarship to play baseball at Toledo.
Senior lineman Connor Smith guides the big boys after an all-conference divisional honorable mention.
Wagner, whose team scored 386 points in 2012 (12 games) for the third-highest total in school history, is excited about the running back tandem of senior Ray King and junior Bailey Miholer-Wortinger, both of whom excelled in preseason scrimmages.
THREE RIVERS WILDCATS
Coach: J.J. Wagner (53-31 record, 9th year).
2012 record: 8-4 (3-2 Wolverine West, 3rd place).
Key players: Logan Kutz (Sr., OL/LB), Kyle Walczak (Sr., WR/LB), Ray King (Sr., RB/LB), Alex Cottingham (Sr., QB/DB), Connor Smith (Sr., OT/DT).
Aug. 29 COMSTOCK
Sept. 6 at Plainwell
Sept. 13 ALLEGAN
Sept. 20 at Coloma
Sept. 27 EDWARDSBURG
Oct. 4 at Berrien Springs
Oct. 11 at Dowagiac
Oct. 18 at South Haven
Oct. 25 at Vicksburg