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Gielczyk: Forest Area Football, Volleyball Thriving in 2016

Their first season playing 8-man football certainly has agreed with the Forest Area football team so far.

After opening with a loss to a very good Deckerville squad, which is 5-0, the Warriors have reeled off four consecutive wins and are holding serve in the new Midwest Central Michigan 8-Man Football Conference with a sparkling 3-0 record. The middle school team is off to a 2-0 start and the junior varsity is 2-1, winning a pair of thrillers.

It’s the first time the Warriors have started a season 4-1 season 2008, which coincidentally is the last time Forest Area qualified for the Michigan High School Athletic Association playoffs following a 7-2 regular season slate.

Forest Area had gone 11-34 from 2011-15, including compiling a dismal 3-15 the last two seasons and struggled with a consistently small roster that presented concerns for the coaching staff going forward, especially when the Ski Valley Conference blew up with the desertion of several teams for the realigned Northern Michigan Football League.

“Kids are playing well. Lots of excitement,” Warriors head coach Brian Mumby said after last Friday night’s 28-0 victory over Manistee Catholic Central in Manistee, their second consecutive shutout. “It’s not like in past years where we hoped to win. We walk on the field now and we expect to win. That’s a big difference, and you can tell by the way the kids play.”

Since the 28-6 loss to Deckerville in Week 1, the Warriors have grown steadily better. Especially on defense, where Mumby says the players are getting more physical, staying in their lanes and not missing assignments.

In fact, the Warriors have held their opponents scoreless over six consecutive quarters after Big Rapids Crossroads Academy punched one in late in the first half in Week 3.

Offensively, the Warriors are clicking behind the scintillating play of quarterback Hollis Thomas who unofficially rushed for 656 yards on 67 carries, averaging more than 10 yards a carry, and 11 touchdowns. He’s also passed for over 200 yards and three scores.

But with the toughest part of their schedule still ahead – games with Marion (3-2, 3-0 Midwest Central) and Wyoming Tri-Unity Christian (5-0, 4-0 Midwest Central) – Mumby knows that the Warriors need to get more of their playmakers involved to keep teams from keying on Thomas.

“That kid is something else,” Mumby says of Thomas. “He is special, that’s for sure. But we have to do a better job of getting our other playmakers involved. It’s kind of hard when every time he touches the ball he’s a threat to score. It’s hard to take the ball out of his hands. He only needs a little bit of space. If he can get the edge at all, he is lightning fast.

“As the year winds down in the next four weeks, and hopefully looking at the playoffs and we continue to win, we’ve got to get other playmakers involved because we have other playmakers on our team.”

Forest Area recognizes the challenges ahead, but is on track to have its best season in many years.

VOLLEYBALL TEAM CRUISING: Despite saying goodbye to five seniors last year, the Forest Area volleyball team just retooled and went back to work. Forget about this rebuilding business. The Warriors would have none of it.

The Warriors are ranked No. 10 in this week’s Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association Class D poll and improved to 5-0 in the Ski Valley Conference and a 22-4-1 record overall Tuesday night with a 3-0 victory over Mancelona.

Head coach Ron Stremlow admits he’s a little surprised with the Warriors success considering there was so much adjusting to do in the starting lineup since six of the 12 rostered players came up from the junior varsity.

But then again, maybe he shouldn’t be. The Warriors put in a lot of work over the summer in scrimmages, as well as individual and team camps.

Caitlyn Gonyer and Kassidy Leffingwell are in their third year starting on varsity. When they were sophomores the Warriors had one of their worst seasons in recent memory with just nine wins, although several of the losses were very close.

“We were close in a lot of games, (but) just couldn’t get over the hump,” Stremlow recalled about last year when we talked about the team’s fast start. “So, I think they (Gonyer and Leffingwell) put a lot on their shoulders knowing we didn’t want that experience again. They kind of stepped their game up and had everyone believing in it.

“I think our junior and senior classes have mixed in well with their roles on the team. I think that’s really helped, too. This is one of the few years when I can actually say I can probably start just about anybody. You normally don’t see that in a Class D school.”

Everyone on the team knows they are capable of starting, and they’re eager to get on the floor. It’s made the competition in practice even more intense, which is a good thing. Stremlow knows he can call on anybody and not see a drop in talent or energy.

“We’ve won a lot of close sets, and right now I think we’re playing the way to win those close sets,” says Stremlow. “They’ve got the motto ‘Refuse to lose.’ They don’t seem to sweat. They lose the first set and it’s like ‘We’ll be all right. We know what we have to do.’”

In that way the Warriors are getting stronger mentally. Playing a lot of close sets is good for their experience that we’re going to need moving forward in conference play and then in the post-season tournament. The Warriors are defending district champions, but haven’t won a conference title since 2009. But in three of the five years since they’ve finished second before slipping to fifth a year ago.

Right now, they control their own destiny in the conference. Which is just where they want to be.

Greg Gielczyk is an award-winning sports columnist and sportwriter who worked a total 36 years — interrupted for an 18-month period from 1997-99 — at the Manistee News Advocate as sports editor until 2006 and is now retired. He currently is a freelane sportswriter for the Ludington Daily News. 

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