As the top cornerback on Fruitport’s varsity football team, Veihl realized he’d be matched up against Christian’s Drake Harris, who is considered not only the best prep receiver in the state of Michigan, but also one of the top pass catchers in the Midwest.
All Harris has done as a junior this season is haul in 59 catches for 1,156 yards and 16 touchdowns in the Eagles’ offense that is dominated by the pass. Harris’ superb athletic ability at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds has allowed him to excel in two sports — football and basketball — and he could quite possibly play both at the college he’s already committed to, Michigan State University.
“I’ve heard about him all season, so when I first saw Grand Rapids Christian, I was a little intimidated,” Veihl said after a Trojans’ practice on Wednesday. “But I got thinking about it more and I know I’ve got confidence in myself and in my teammates. We just can’t let him get behind us. We need to stay on top of him, be aggressive and make some good plays.”
It’s that type of mindset that Veihl hopes all of his teammates possess, as they’ll be underdogs entering their first-round Division 3 playoff matchup at Grand Rapids Christian High School on Friday. The Eagles (8-1) are the champions of the talent-filled O-K White Conference and are ranked No. 2 in Division 3.
“We know Christian’s a good team, but we definitely feel if we go in and play our game, we can shock everybody,” Veihl said. “We realize we have a chance to do something special, and do something that most people aren’t expecting us to do.”
If a huge upset is in store, it would add to an already memorable fall for the 6-foot, 175-pound Veihl, who has seen his contributions skyrocket for the Trojans compared to his junior year, when he was listed as the team’s third-string quarterback and took over a starting cornerback role only after an injury.
Veihl said even when he got his start in the Muskegon-area youth league football, he’s excelled as a wide receiver, but the position was rarely utilized in Fruitport’s offensive system under former coach Steve Wilson, who preferred a run-heavy Wing-T formation.
“I had zero catches last year,” Veihl said with a grin. “Zero. None.”
But he had an inkling that he may have a chance to showcase his pass-catching skills near the end of last season, when then-defensive coordinator Greg Vargas promised he’d see a different role.
“Coach Vargas told me that ‘if I get the job, and if you work your butt off in the off-season, I’ll turn you into a wide receiver,’” Veihl recalled.
Vargas was the man to replace Wilson and immediately promised a more wide-open offense, which would better utilize the Trojans’ cast of talented athletes, Veihl included.
“When we got in the weight room during the summer, Coach would tell us that we should be catching about 100 balls a day,” Veihl said. “I wouldn’t do that every day, but almost every time we were done lifting, I would go out with our quarterback, Tyler Fehler, and go catch 100 balls.”
With the dual-threat Fehler running the show under center or in the shotgun, the Trojans won their first eight games, wrapped an outright championship in the Lakes Eight Conference, and clinched their third-straight trip to the playoffs.
Fehler’s favorite target has been Veihl as a deep threat, allowing him to record 33 catches for 504 yards and six touchdowns.
But Veihl has excelled on both sides of the ball, as he’s been a part of a Fruitport defense that held Lakes Eight opponents to an average of just under 10 points per game. Despite a tough-luck loss in Week 9, the Trojans’ ‘D’ proved it was up to the task again, limiting the DeWitt’s pass-heavy offense to just seven yards in the second half.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in our secondary,” Veihl said. “Tyler is a two-year starter at safety, (Shawn) Knox has played some, and we’ve got (Mitchell) Reyes, who can really catch the ball. I can cover guys pretty well, then we’ve got (safety) Matt Boroff, who can come up and hit guys, but he also makes a lot of plays.”
With ball-hawking safeties and quick linebackers also able to provide some relief in coverage, Veihl won’t be trying to shut down Harris alone. Vargas said Fruitport will employ what he calls “cloud coverage,” which will guarantee that Harris won’t see any 1-on-1 matchups.
“We’ll try to harass (Harris) at the line, but our corners will have the assurance that there’s someone over top, so it’s not like they’re letting him go free,” Vargas said.
Even with the realization that Harris will be the most talented player he’ll face and Christian is the most polished offense the Trojans have seen, Veihl said they have to maintain focus and don’t forget of their season-long goal – competing for a state championship.
“We can’t come out like we did against DeWitt, because Christian’s too good,” Veihl said. “We have to come with the mindset that we have to play like we did in the second half (against DeWitt). If we do that, I’m very confident in our chances.”