By Paul Costanzo
Special for Second Half
The joke wasn’t incredibly original, nor was it incredibly funny, especially if you had any connection to the Goodrich football program.
But when you suffer through a winless season like the Martians did in 2016, people are going to have jokes.
This one was a knock-knock joke, and Owen was at the door. Owen Nine.
Goodrich senior defensive back and captain Ryan Aylmer can at least smile now when he tells it, because with the Martians having just completed an 8-1 regular season, there are no more jokes.
“This year, people go through the school and they talk about who we got next week, and what we’re looking like in the playoffs,” Aylmer said. “Now teachers are talking about the games in school, and I’ve got little kids recognizing who I am. People are back into the program now that we’re succeeding. It feels great, especially after last year when it felt like we were nothing, that forgotten team. But now we’re back in the community.”
This isn’t a story of some moribund program finally finding its way to the postseason. In fact, when Goodrich hosts Pontiac Notre Dame Prep on Friday in the first round of the MHSAA Division 4 playoffs, it will be in a familiar spot.
From 2008 through 2015, Goodrich qualified for the playoffs six times, and had a losing record just once.
The question in Goodrich was how does 0-9 happen?
“That team we had last year, they weren’t an 0-9 team,” Goodrich coach Tom Alward said. “I should have done a better job last year, and we should have won several games. It just didn’t happen. This year, kids are making things happen that we couldn’t make happen last year.”
Alward took over the Goodrich program in 1993, and in 1995 led the Martians to the postseason for the first time ever. His 146 wins since are the most in program history, and he already has been inducted into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Despite all of that previous success, a moment at the end of last season led Alward to say he had never been more proud of any team he had ever coached.
“After our ninth game last year at St. Johns, when we just got beat 52-0 to finish an 0-9 season, that entire team stayed on the St. Johns football field for probably a half hour, 40 minutes just talking to one another, hugging one another -- they knew it was the end,” Alward said. “They played their tails off all year. I can’t say enough about them. I just feel so bad that they have that 0-9 stigma. I’ve got that stigma myself from when I played at Tampa on the 0-14 team (for the NFL’s Buccaneers in 1976). But I just feel bad, because they didn’t deserve that.”
Alward and his staff didn’t panic and make drastic changes following the winless season, but in his 25th with the Martians, he was able to look at all aspects of the program, including himself, to see where things needed to be different.
“We did exit interviews at the end of last year, because we were concerned about the culture,” Alward said. “We’ve been able to win here for a number of years, and we didn’t want to all of the sudden have kids thinking that they couldn’t win because we went 0-9. We wanted to address that part of it, so we did exit interviews, we did a lot of offseason bonding exercises, team building and all of that stuff. This team is pretty close. We were fortunate to get off to a good start, and the rest has kind of just taken care of itself.”
That bond, players say, is what has sparked the rebound.
“We would go out to dinner together, we would do everything together all summer long,” senior defensive lineman and captain Sebastian Foglio said. “We would work out together, we would push each other. There’s no age, there’s no ‘freshmen get the water,’ none of that stuff. We just came together and did what we had to do. Everybody is close with everybody, nobody dislikes anybody. If we do, we’ll talk and change that.”
And the start, well, it couldn’t have been much better.
In Goodrich’s opening game against Burton Bendle, freshman Tyson Davis returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. It was an immediate announcement that the 2017 season would be different.
“It was a sigh of relief,” Aylmer said. “Last year we scored (66) points all year. Seeing, literally, the first play of the brand new year getting taken back, and scoring (44) points our first game, it was just a sigh of relief getting that out of the way and realizing that we can do that this year.”
Goodrich rolled to a 3-0 start, outscoring opponents by a combined score of 132-12 before falling 20-7 in Week 4 against Genesee Area Conference Red rival Lake Fenton. But a resounding 42-0 win the next week against Otisville-LakeVille started a five-game winning streak to end the regular season for the Martians, who outscored opponents by an average of nearly 26 points on the year.
Suddenly all of the social media chatter from the area was gone, along with the jokes. But the lessons learned from an 0-9 season were not.
“There’s been a chip on our shoulder,” Aylmer said. “It seems like every week these guys last year thought we were bad, or we played them last year and they beat us. We had a chip on our shoulder and everybody has taken it to heart, and it seems like we’ve been fighting every week as an 0-9 team, but we’re really a good team this year.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Goodrich celebrates seeing itself on the playoff bracket during Sunday’s selection show on FOX Sports Detroit. (Middle) Goodrich freshman Tyson Davis contends for a loose ball during the season opener against Burton Bendle; he returned the opening kickoff that game for a touchdown. (Top photo by Paul Costanzo; bottom photo by Terry Lyons.)