By Paul Costanzo
Special for Second Half
Gameplanning around Braiden McGregor seemed like a no-brainer coming into the season for Port Huron Northern’s opponents.
While avoiding the 6-foot-5, 250-pound junior linebacker and defensive end is still pretty wise, it’s not exactly working thanks to the emergence of senior defensive lineman Maurice Powell and an overall outstanding supporting cast.
“I think it’s just the whole team – I don’t think it’s one person or anything like that. It’s just us working together as a team every day and every game,” said McGregor, who has 16 Division I college offers, including from the Big Ten’s elite and Notre Dame. “I don’t think they can really gameplan around one person, because we have another person that steps up and makes plays.”
The Huskies will play for their first Regional title Friday night at home against Warren DeLaSalle. With a pair of playoff wins and a Macomb Area Conference Blue title already under their belt, this already has been the most successful season in program history regardless of what happens against the reigning Division 2 champion.
That success can be attributed in large part to the Northern defense, which is allowing 11.6 points per game, its best effort since 2010 when the team allowed a paltry 9.8 per contest.
“It’s been truly energetic throughout the whole wave of the defense,” Powell said. “We all feed off of each other’s energy, and we work hard in practice every day. We don’t give in, and we play hard every game.”
Powell has been a problem for opposing offenses all fall, as he racked up 75 tackles with 16 tackles for loss, 6½ sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries (including one returned for a touchdown) during the regular season.
His outstanding season has led to interest from Division I and II collegiate programs. While he doesn’t have an offer yet, he has taken recent trips to Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Michigan University. He’ll head to Northwood for an official visit in December.
“It’s been nice, of course to have the talent with those kids, and also the supporting cast they have around them,” Northern coach Larry Roelens said. “Those two guys right there are leaders, too. They come out and work just as hard as anyone else, if not harder than anyone else, and kids see that and they feed off it. It’s been amazing. The kids are buying in and feeding off each other, and the school and the staff and the students, it’s been phenomenal.”
Both players are versatile, and defensive coordinator Brett VanDrew has used Powell all over the defensive line, while using McGregor essentially everywhere but cornerback. Their abilities, along with the emergence of players like middle linebacker Austin Eagle (who had the game-clinching interception in overtime of the District title game against St. Clair Shores Lakeview), has made gameplanning that much more difficult for opposing offenses.
The defense’s play as a whole, meanwhile, has made things easier for Roelens, who calls the offensive plays.
“Knowing you have a good defense and knowing we run the ball 70 percent of the time, it helps control the game and dictate the clock, and that’s kind of how we’re built,” Roelens said. “We just kind of methodically make our way down the field and put some points on the board, and know our defense is going to hold strong. If we just keep chewing clock and playing field position, we’ll be all right.”
Neither player has shied away from the spotlight their success, and that of the team, has brought upon them. When asked if they have to block out all of the eyes that now are watching them on the field, both smiled and laughed it off.
“Whatever happens, happens,” Powell said. “You just have to make it happen. … You have to have fun while you’re playing.”
Both also realize the eyes on them aren’t just those of college scouts, but a younger generation of players in Port Huron. They’re excited to help show them the way.
“All this recruiting stuff has really helped out with bringing football back to Port Huron, especially with the younger kids like TAFL (Thumb Area Football League, the area’s youth program),” McGregor said. “My mom and dad’s friend, he’s a coach there and they all just want to be like No. 17 (McGregor), I guess. I went to a couple of their practices, and it’s cool, but I’m just happy that football is starting to pick up in the area again. I hope that next year, we can be a pretty big powerhouse again, then keep it going.”
The attention given highly-recruited prospects and a winning program also benefits the other current players on the team.
“Everything goes hand in hand,” Roelens said. “The more football games you win, the more exposure you’re going to get, and you have a good supporting cast of the other kids on the team that just keep working in the weight room in the offseason and the winter time, because they never know when they’re going to get seen, too.”
Northern’s next opponent – DeLaSalle – is no stranger to the spotlight winning and top recruits can bring to a program. The Pilots ended Northern’s season in the District Final a year ago and will be considered favorites by most Friday night, despite having to travel to Northern’s home field.
After spending the entire season playing as if everyone was watching, the Huskies feel they’re ready for the spotlight.
“We’re not afraid of anybody,” Powell said. “We’ll play anybody – we're not scared of anybody. We play with heart night in and night out, and we won’t back down from a challenge. We love challenges, and we live for stuff like this.”
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.
PHOTO: Port Huron Northern’s Braiden McGregor (17) and Maurice Powell celebrate a big play during the Oct. 5 21-14 win over Port Huron. (Photo by Delta Imaging.)