There is only one junior college program playing football in the state of Michigan, and Grand Rapids Community College is making their presence felt on the national level under first-year head coach Tony Annese.
Annese was a decorated high school coach in the state of Michigan before coming to Grand Rapids Community College. His most recent stop was Muskegon High School where he won three state titles over a five-year span with the Big Red. Making the move to the junior college ranks presented a new challenge for Annese, however.
"When you coach a winning program, you take for granted the mindset kids have about having a winning program," Annese said. "Every job I've taken, there was a pretty strong tradition, but kids don't know about a tradition when they come to a two-year institution. So, the most striking thing I find is there are a lot of kids who come from losing programs and they have no sense about what it takes to be successful.
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"Our challenge was to get all our kids to buy into the things we were selling and I think our kids did for the most part."
"Buying in" may be understating the GRCC players' response to Annese this fall. After going 3-6 and 3-7 in the previous two seasons before Annese arrived, the Raiders have rolled to a perfect 10-0 record, outscoring the opposition 480-227.
GRCC runs a version of the spread offense that requires their quarterbacks to not only be great passers, but also a threat to run with the football. Much of their offensive success this fall, then, is credited to the abilities of 6-3, 205-pound sophomore Casey Therriault of Wyoming, Mich.
"We've leaned on Casey Therriault quite a bit because our system is pretty complex," Annese said. "He's been able to do the things that really we wanted to do, so that helps a lot. He's been a solid performer for us."
Therriault has completed 63 percent of his passes this fall for 1,801 yards and 20 touchdowns against just six interceptions. He has also rushed 113 times for 620 yards and another 11 scores.
Therriault's favorite target has been 6-2, 240-pound wide receiver Demonte Collins, who has 53 receptions for 892 yards and 12 touchdowns on the season.
Collins graduated from high school in 2003, but is appealing to the NCAA for a year of eligibility after being out of football for several years. He has the skills to bring his game to the professional level, however, and could opt for that route if he is not granted a waiver by the NCAA.
Defensively the Raiders are paced by sophomore defensive tackle Phillip Lewis and sophomore cornerback Anthony Hollis. The 6-2, 275-pound Lewis has recorded 54 tackles and an outstanding 20 sacks through ten games this fall. The 5-10, 180-pound Hollis, meanwhile, has 32 total tackles and four interceptions on the season.
"Anthony Hollis epitomizes what we want our people to be and so is Phillip Lewis," Annese commented. "Those are two outstanding young people who underachieved in high school academically, but have really committed themselves to choose a path that is righteous in a lot of ways as students and as fine examples for young people."
Annese knows players like Therriault, Hollis and Lewis have what it takes to make the transition to the Division 1 level, but being located outside the more well traveled JUCO recruiting grounds has slowed the recruiting process for his kids.
Lewis is hearing from schools like Western Michigan and West Virginia, but Hollis said few teams have shown interest at this stage even though he had several BCS Conference offers coming out of Detroit's Northwestern High School in the 2008 class. Therriault, like Hollis, is looking to hear more from schools.
Offensive lineman Marcus Cann (6-5, 305) from Bamberg, S.C., has committed to Western Michigan. Cann is one of several standout offensive line prospects the Raiders feature. Others include guard Percy Scott (6-2, 270), guard Paul Bengel (6-4, 260) and freshman tackle Dion Howze (6-6, 300).
GRCC has had talented teams in the past, but few of their players made the transition to the Division 1 ranks because they had not corrected the academic issues that put them there in the first place. Annese has changed that culture and is interested in developing the whole person, instead of just teaching them football.
"The thing that is sometimes missing in a two-year institution is that relationship with the young people you are working with everyday," Annese said. "That was my No. 1 priority - let's develop that communication with the ball player and try to be that support system for them. A lot of them do not have that academic record that they need to be successful, so we try to provide a lot of those services."
Annese knows success on the field and in the win column will generate attention from four-year institutions for his kids, but he also plans to continue stocking his stable of athletes. Being the only football playing junior college program in Michigan, and one of the few in the Midwest, will help keep the talent coming GRCC's direction.
"Our first mission was to establish relationships with high school coaches in Michigan, and me being a high school coach helped," Annese noted. "Then, we got some help from some of the four-year institutions. We were late starting, but we put a list together and thought we did a pretty good job.
"We try to hit the Midwest and treat Ohio like most people treat Florida. We also did a pretty good job in Indianapolis. I think it is a lot easier to recruit being 10-0 than it was being 3-7 like we were last year, so we're excited about the prospects of the future."
This past weekend, GRCC took home the Midwest Football Conference East Division title with a 41-27 win over Joliet. They now await word on a bowl game selection.