After being announced the head football coach at Kalamazoo Central last May, Carlton Brewster took a deep look into the group he had just inherited.
Brewster saw much more than a team limping off a 2-7 season. Brewster saw a team with talent, and he saw a team with some fight.
“Last year, they were in a lot of tough games,” Brewster said. “I saw toughness in these kids. They never quit. I knew there were some key seniors coming back. I did my research on their opponents, and I thought:
‘You know what? We could go to the playoffs.’”
That thought came to fruition Friday night, as the Giants (6-3) clinched a spot in the MHSAA playoffs for the first time since 2004, with a dominant 39-7 win over Gull Lake (0-9).
The immediate success of the first year head coach isn’t simply a matter of turning around some rough fortunes from one year ago. Over the previous six years, the Giants had a record of 15-37, winning two games or fewer in three different seasons.
“I knew they had talent here,” Brewster said. “Sometimes the puzzle doesn’t fit. It’s important you keep finding that piece. I was a perfect fit, and they were a perfect fit for me. It’s been a perfect match.”
Senior quarterback Faylin Goodwin agrees.
“We’ve believed in coach since he got here,” Goodwin said. “We just believed in him. We trusted him. Everybody bough in, we worked hard and got it done.”
The Brewster era got off to a rocky start. The Giants opened the season at home on August 24 against Mattawan, and had a rude awakening, as the Wildcats ran away with a 31-3 win.
“We lost 31-3, and I remember going into that game with high hopes,” Brewster recalled of the season opener. “We felt super confident. I think I was over confident. But the main piece was, I didn’t know we weren’t connected. We weren’t a family. We weren’t a brotherhood. That was huge in itself.”
The very next week, the Giants beat Portage Central 30-14, in what Brewster called the turning point in the season.
“These kids are so tough, and they made it happen,” Brewster said. “We still had some highs and lows after that. But they just stuck with it.”
With a playoff berth on the line, the Giants faced similar adversity early on against the Blue Devils on Friday night. Gull Lake scored on its opening drive, taking a 7-0 lead when Juston Larkin scored on a reverse from 10 yards out. The Giants scored on the very next drive, cutting the deficit to 7-6. In the second quarter, defense and special teams got in the mix. First, it was Devond Dobbins recovering a botched snap on a Gull Lake punt, returning it 40 yards for a score. A mere 11 seconds later, Roy Whimper intercepted a pass and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.
“I wasn’t worried at all, I know our kids,” Brewster said of the early Gull Lake score. “It woke our kids up.
‘I knew Gull Lake was going to play hard. They had nothing to lose. They could take gambles. They did well, but our kids responded.”
In the second half, Kalamazoo Central leaned on its running game to pull away. Sophomore running back Jaden Blanchard scored three second-half touchdowns, finishing the day with 126 yards on only eight carries.
“In the locker room, the coaches came in and said it’s time to take it away, and give them no hope,” Goodwin said.
Hope has not been in abundance for the Kalamazoo Central football program in quite some time. But that all changed Friday night behind the first year head coach who has his sights set much higher than a single playoff berth.
“I’m so happy for our senior group, for our district … most of all, I’m just happy for these kids,” Brewster said. “I know I am not showing a whole lot of emotion, but I’ve shown emotion all year. This is just the beginning. I’m super excited.”
The team will gather on Sunday to find out who they will be playing in the first round of the playoffs, and then the Giants will move on to trying to add to this dramatic turnaround season.
“We’ve got a 24 hour rule,” said Goodwin. “We have a our party on Sunday, so we might extend it to enjoy that moment. Right after that, we’re back to being locked in.”