Bridging the gap: Manistee’s magical season connecting past with present

The 2018 undefeated Manistee High School football team, pictured (from left to right) in the front row: Roger Lind, Abdiel Nuñez, Ben Granger, Fletcher Carpenter, Keegan Bonzheim, Jayden Thompson and Christian Sparks. Middle row: Trevor Johns, Logan Buren, Joe Stocki, Connor Barke, Anthony Vaughn, Austin Guenther, Jack Sandstedt, Blake Mikula and Keith Barke. Back row: Kale Glass, Kyle Mantych, Kyle Pefley, Ty Phillips, Billy Henkel, Brady Mikula, Keaton Connell, Trac Allen, Isaac Reynolds and Jesus Cruz. (News Advocate file photo)

The 2018 undefeated Manistee High School football team, pictured (from left to right) in the front row: Roger Lind, Abdiel Nuñez, Ben Granger, Fletcher Carpenter, Keegan Bonzheim, Jayden Thompson and Christian Sparks. Middle row: Trevor Johns, Logan Buren, Joe Stocki, Connor Barke, Anthony Vaughn, Austin Guenther, Jack Sandstedt, Blake Mikula and Keith Barke. Back row: Kale Glass, Kyle Mantych, Kyle Pefley, Ty Phillips, Billy Henkel, Brady Mikula, Keaton Connell, Trac Allen, Isaac Reynolds and Jesus Cruz. (News Advocate file photo)

Logan Buren took to football in second grade, when the hits were softer, the pace slower, and his pads to scale: small enough to fit a player getting his first taste of the gridiron.

But even then, Buren packed big dreams inside of that blue and gold winged helmet. And why wouldn’t he? For him and his teammates, it was love at first snap.

“From the time I started playing Pop Warner, this was always my dream,” said Buren, now a senior receiver on the undefeated Manistee High School football team. “Go undefeated and win playoff games by the time I got to high school.”

Heading into the postseason on Saturday, after a magical 9-0 regular season run, the Chippewas are in the midst of that dream and they’re taking the town with them — a community that has thirsted for this type of success for more than a half-century.

“They are being exposed to what high school football is all about,” said Manistee coach Troy Bytwork. “I’ve heard comments from the kids, things like, ‘yeah, I was at the movie theater,’ or ‘I was at a restaurant, and someone walked up to shake my hand.’

“A lot of people are coming out of the woodwork to congratulate them,” he added. “Adults are approaching these kids to tell them how fun they’ve been to watch.”

And the younger generation? Forget about it. These Chippewas are super heroes.

The 1961 undefeated Manistee High School football team, pictured (from left to right) in the front row: Jim Baumgartner, Phil Snyder, Dan Radtke, Carl Haase, Jim “Nipper” Wisniski, Dennis Lynch, Rich Nickelson, Al Rohrstaff, John Carter and Chales Rhodea. Middle row: Head coach Mal Pearson, Jim Brye, Clinton Smith, Marty Skiera, Jim Coombs, Evans Johnson, Mike Maurer, Dave Schultz, Burke Peterson, Dan Doyles and assistant coach Ken Foust. Back row: Team manager Ron Peterson, Dan Patulski, Don Swanson, Bob Bowes, Ron Wicinski, Dave Bradshaw, Jim Konicki, Robert Duchinski, Dennis Edmondson, Bill Preston, Bill Tetzlaff and manager Chuck Baker. Not pictured: Dave Patulski. (Courtesy photo)

The 1961 undefeated Manistee High School football team, pictured (from left to right) in the front row: Jim Baumgartner, Phil Snyder, Dan Radtke, Carl Haase, Jim “Nipper” Wisniski, Dennis Lynch, Rich Nickelson, Al Rohrstaff, John Carter and Chales Rhodea. Middle row: Head coach Mal Pearson, Jim Brye, Clinton Smith, Marty Skiera, Jim Coombs, Evans Johnson, Mike Maurer, Dave Schultz, Burke Peterson, Dan Doyles and assistant coach Ken Foust. Back row: Team manager Ron Peterson, Dan Patulski, Don Swanson, Bob Bowes, Ron Wicinski, Dave Bradshaw, Jim Konicki, Robert Duchinski, Dennis Edmondson, Bill Preston, Bill Tetzlaff and manager Chuck Baker. Not pictured: Dave Patulski. (Courtesy photo)

“The little kids in school, they just think these guys are pretty amazing,” Bytwork said. “And that’s part of all this: When you’re doing things that haven’t been done for a while, it’s special, and it should be celebrated.”

While the 2018 Chippewas’ chapter is still being written — with a playoff opener against Clare slated for 1 p.m. on Saturday at Chippewa Field — their accomplishments thus far are sure to linger. The proof of that is in the past, as well as the present.

PAST PERFECTION

“We played in the old stadium, back where the high school used to be, and it would be so packed, people stood 10-deep along the fence,” Jim Wisniski recalled. “In my years there, we only lost three games, and in our senior season we put it all together and went 8-0.”

Best known as “Nipper,” Wisniski was the Chippewas’ bruising running back and heart of the last Manistee football team to go undefeated: the 1961 state champions.

In those days, playoffs were nonexistent and state titles were determined by newspapers, wire services and coaches. Manistee’s perfect record earned the team a share of a Class B state championship by United Press International’s coaches board. Until this season, that ‘61 group was the winningest team in program history — a record that stood for 57 years, to be exact.

“Back then, we didn’t think there was a team in the state that could have beat us,” Wisniski said. And the numbers would certainly back him up.

Manistee outscored opponents 173-13, allowing just two scores all season — one to Ludington and the other to Mount Pleasant. During the run, the Chippewas defeated three Class A schools and cruised to a North Central title, which was the last outright conference championship for the program until this season’s team locked up the Lakes-8 crown.

Much like this year’s squad, Manistee’s bread and butter was on the ground. The ‘61 Chippewas rushed for 2,249 yards while averaging 5.15 yards per carry.

“We had good blocking and ran the ball hard,” said Phil Snyder, the team’s quarterback and play-caller. “We’d stuff it right down people’s throats. We knew that’s what we were going to do, and they knew that’s what we were going to do. It didn’t make any difference.

“We had such a tough defense too,” he added. “You always want two or three kids that really like to hit — not kids who hit because they have to when someone’s coming at them — but kids who like to get aggressive. We had about five really tough hitters. … A defense like that can take you a long ways. If they can’t score, they can’t win.”

The senior-heavy Chippewas entered that historic season knowing they had a chance to run the table.

“We told our coach (Mal Pearson), at the end of the year before, that we weren’t planning on losing a game our senior season,” Wisniski said.

Manistee senior running back Jack Sandstedt picks up yardage during a 49-28 win over Perry earlier this season. (News Advocate file photo)

Manistee senior running back Jack Sandstedt picks up yardage during a 49-28 win over Perry earlier this season. (News Advocate file photo)

The Chippewas were coming off two straight 7-1 campaigns and took it upon themselves to prepare for perfection in the offseason.

“We all knew what positions we’d be playing, so we went to the beach almost every day in the summer and practiced our plays in the water and in the sand,” Wisniski recalled. “That was one of the reasons, I think, we were so strong. I remember (Pearson) tried to run us hard that first day (of practice), but he couldn’t tire any of us out.”

Snyder agreed. Practice made perfect.

“We never took any game for granted at all,” he said. “We never sat around thinking we were too good to practice. We always practiced hard.

“And we built one hell of a tradition of winning that way.”

SOMETHING SPECIAL

When the Class of 1961 left, so did coach Pearson. And a small piece of that winning tradition went with them.

Manistee went 0-8 the following year and, as history would have it, the program would only flirt with that type of success a few times, going 7-3 in 1999 and again in 2015.

Even the current-day Chippewas went through some growing pains, winning just two games a season ago.

“My image of what we were capable of got a little cloudy after last year,” Buren said. “But we worked so hard in the summer to improve, that by the time this season started we were confident we could do something special.”

Manistee fullback Jim “Nipper” Wisniski (center) picks up yards during a season-opening 20-0 win against Alma. (Courtesy photo)

Manistee fullback Jim “Nipper” Wisniski (center) picks up yards during a season-opening 20-0 win against Alma. (Courtesy photo)

Special indeed.

With a deceptive, speedy ground game and tough-as-nails defense, the Chippewas have outscored opponents 360-183, translating to a 40 points-per-game average and a 20-point average margin of victory. They are the school’s record-holders for total points in a season by a wide margin and counting, and en route to the program-high nine victories the team notched signature wins over rival Ludington and perennial powerhouse Muskegon Catholic Central.

“For the last five, six, seven weeks, I’ve found myself in discussions about how this team has done something nobody has done for ‘this’ many years, or broke ‘this’ record or ‘that’ record,” Bytwork said at a recent team gathering to watch the MHSAA’s playoff selection show. “The types of things they’ve done in a nine-week regular season is unforgettable stuff. People will talk about it 50 years from now, and teams will still be trying to match ‘that 2018 group.’

“That particular combination of numbers is going to stick with these kids forever. 9-0: that’s always the goal,” he said. “Whether every team that I’ve coached or helped coach has believed it, that’s hard to say. But these kids did. And they were able to achieve something that most high schools teams won’t. … It means a lot to the kids and it means a lot to me.

“And I’ve said it many times: the thing I love about these players most of all — aside from them being great kids — is they love this game. They love playing football together.”

‘THE OL’ GLORY DAYS’

These days, memories from 1961 are formed collectively by the players who achieved perfection.

“The stories always get bigger and better as we get older,” Wisniski said with a laugh. “I’m 75 now, and there are some things the guys tell me I did when I was running that I have no recollection of. I guess we all remember different things.”

And they still share these stories together.

“We’ve remained quite close,” said Snyder. “We make sure to get together every once a while, and my wife will tell you it’s always about ‘The Ol’ Glory Days’ when we do.

“Let’s put it this way: it’s a very, very precious memory,” he said. “Some people don’t experience big success in high school, so if you played on a team like that, it gives you a good feeling for the rest of your life.

“People still talk about it, so there must be something to it.”

Snyder made sure to catch a couple games this year as the current team chased the elusive record.

“I was really excited to see them come along so well,” he said. “You can never play mistake-free, but they don’t make many. They play really well together and the one key they have is a bunch of kids who can really scoot if they get an opening.

“I was hoping that they would beat our record, so it was nice to see that happen.”

Wisniski concurred.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “That’s what records are made for: somebody to break them.”

The Chippewas, of course, aren’t ready to hang their hats on anything just yet.

“Going 9-0 is one heck of a cool accomplishment, and I’ll never forget this team for that,” Bytwork said. “But I don’t think their journey is done. These kids want to play football together for as long as we’re able to play football together. We want to take this as far as we can take it.”

The message has certainly resonated.

“We definitely recognize the importance of it, especially to everyone around us,” said Bryson Jensen, a senior running back for Manistee, “but I don’t think we’ve dwelled on it too much. Our coach wants us to keep looking ahead.”

Buren added: “We want to keep moving forward, so we really haven’t had much time to let it soak in.”

And they’ve got all the time in the world to let it. Their memories will last a lifetime. Their legacy, even longer.

 

avatar

Posted by Dylan Savela

Dylan is the county reporter for the News Advocate, he also is in charge of the Small Town Life, religion and senior pages. He can be reached at (231) 398-3111 or dsavela@pioneergroup.com.

Leave a Reply