Above: Junior receiver Jack Morse has caught 19 passes, three for touchdowns, this season for East Lansing. He is also the team's kicker, having converted 34 of 37 extra point attempts.
As the East Lansing football team prepares for its regional playoff game against undefeated Harper Creek in Battle Creek (7 p.m. Friday), the Trojans will sport a much different look than they did three months ago at the start of preseason practice.
In early August Coach Bill Feraco said his team lacked vision, patience and belief.
“They wanted everything to happen right away, which in this world of instant gratification is very common,” Feraco said. “Our goal as coaches was to bring them along gradually, to see what could happen if they believed in each other and what we were trying to teach.”
Nine wins later, including the last seven in a row, and the 9-2 Trojans have vaulted into a regional title matchup. The last time an ELHS team advanced this far in the playoffs was 2011, when it lost to eventual runner-up Mount Pleasant 28-20.
The winner of Friday’s game will meet the Muskegon-DeWitt winner in the Division 3 semifinals next weekend.
“It’s been a process,” said Feraco, now in his fourteenth season as the Trojans’ head coach. “Things started really clicking in week seven and have been gradually getting better since then. We feel very good about what we have done to this point.”
After splitting its first four games, the Trojans reeled off consecutive victories over Eastern (39-0), Holt (22-20), Everett (27-14), Sexton (21-6) and Okemos (17-14) to close out the regular season. Then came district playoff victories over Tecumseh (35-7) and crosstown rival Haslett (14-3).
The Trojans’ defense, Feraco said, might be playing its best football of the season.
“We are moving to the ball and defending exceptionally well right now,” he said. “We’re creating turnovers and not giving the opponent much freedom to do what they want.”
Defensively, senior Derrick Lee leads the team with 60 unassisted tackles from his outside linebacker position while junior defensive back Justin Brown (“… our Swiss Army knife because he does a little bit of everything,” according to Feraco), senior defensive back Blake Underwood and senior defensive lineman Mykel Thornton have limited East Lansing’s opposition to 14 points or less over the past five games.
Harper Creek, ranked No. 4 in Division 3, toppled Coldwater 26-21 in its playoff opener then flashed more of its offensive firepower in a 42-24 victory over Lakeshore in the district championship game.
Quarterback Jackson Malone and running backs Noah Bauserman and Jalonty Hervey form the bulwark of the Harper Creek offensive attack for the Beavers (11-0), who have overcome the early season loss of senior running back Dawson Bartlett. A year ago Bartlett rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and was named All-State Special Mention.
Hervey leads Harper Creek with 741 yards rushing and six touchdowns, Bauserman has gained 458 yards with 10 touchdowns and Malone has 701 yards running with nine scores. Malone has also thrown for 805 yards and six touchdowns.
“They’ll come at us from a few different directions,” Feraco said. “They’re fairly quick offensively and they’ll also line up in a Wing T, closed formation … which may or may not cause some problems for us.”
East Lansing will counter offensively with senior quarterback Connor Charamella (15 TDs, 1,407 yards passing), junior running back Kobe Hayward (934 yards rushing, 4.81 average per carry, 14 TDs) and the aforementioned Underwood (41 receptions, 851 yards, 8 TDs).
Feraco also singled out the improved play of the Trojans’ offensive line in the postseason.
“"From a continuity standpoint, this group has really put it together over the past couple of games,” Feraco said, referring to the recent play of linemen Jack Watters (senior), Triston Klusack (senior), Jalil Lewis (junior), Bryan Johnson (senior), Ethan Boyd (freshman) and Mykel Thornton. “For example, we had a 15- or 16-play drive against Haslett last week where we chewed up about nine minutes off the clock. We didn’t score, but it was that kind of dominance that has allowed us to control the play at key points."
And learn to believe in themselves.
“We tell the kids all the time, in order to own success you have to pay the rent – and pay it on time,” Feraco said.
And perhaps secure a semifinal berth along the way.
Update: Harper Creek beat out East Lansing 16-13.