After years of getting pushed around and finishing in the bottom half of the O-K Red Conference, the Buccaneers are charging forward in 2018 with a 2-0 start and a full steam of confidence.
One of the key engines on the Buccaneer express is junior fullback Connor Worthington.
"The season has been going great so far, and there's definitely a lot of excitement within the program," he said after Thursday's practice. "Everyone is enjoying being out on the field and competing, and it helps when you're winning games. We're ready to keep it going.
"I knew we had the talent to do it, but it all comes down to whether you execute or not. The juniors on the team were pretty confident because we had a really good junior varsity team last year. We pulled out some close wins, but we put in a lot of hard work, so we felt prepared heading into this season."
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound bruiser of an athlete has moved plenty of piles for Grand Haven already this season, often carrying a handful of defenders with him. But before his first varsity game against Reeths-Puffer on Aug. 23, there was still plenty of nervousness.
"I was a little worried," he admitted. "I didn't really know what to expect, but I knew they hit harder at the varsity level and the defenses were going to move a lot faster, too. After that first hit though, I was just kind of thinking, ‘Oh, this isn't that bad.' After that, I just stayed dialed into the play calls and tried to go out there and make a play for my teammates."
Worthington embraces the physicality of his running style now, but it wasn't a natural instinct when he first started playing.
"I don't shy away from contact," he added. "I think that stems from my freshman year when I was at running back, and I was trying to do all these moves when I had the ball. It just wasn't working for me, and the coaches were yelling at me to go forward and get the yardage. I found out pretty quickly that going straight forward worked a lot better and cutting only when you have to make things a lot more productive. I've just kept running behind my pads and going forward since then."
That forward-thinking attitude has resulted in back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances to start his varsity career.
Against Reeths-Puffer, Worthington rushed for 104 yards on 19 carries and followed that effort with a 119-yard game against Traverse City West with one touchdown. The biggest rush came late in the game, when the junior fullback rumbled for a key first down to seal the team's win.
"To be honest, I was a little concerned because we were running a trap play on third-and-long and that hadn't been working all game," he admitted. "I just wanted to make a play, so I took the carry, got hit around the line of scrimmage but kept moving my feet. All of sudden, I saw some open field in front of me and I took off.
"There's no better feeling in the world than when you see a big running lane open up in front of you when you have the ball in your hands."
Like the majority of Grand Haven starters this fall, Worthington contributes on both sides of the ball. He racked up 11 total tackles last week from his defensive tackle position.
"I like defense because it's a different challenge," he added. "It's basically you versus the guy in front of you, and your job is to get past him. Whoever has better technique and works harder is usually going to win."
Before stepping foot on the varsity football field, Worthington was prepared for what varsity sports entailed. He was a valuable member of the Grand Haven varsity baseball team, splitting time as a left fielder and designated hitter.
"I think it's good to play multiple sports," he said. "You don't get burned out by one sport and it works different muscles, while keeping you in shape for all the other sports you play. By the end of baseball season, I'm ready for it to be done and move on to football, and I'm sure it'll be the same way when football is over."
Worthington's head coach, Joe Nelson, has always been a firm supporter of multi-sport athletes.
"I think that helps because it allows him to get an understanding for what it's like to compete at the varsity level," he said. "The extra commitment that's involved, the speed of everything, especially at practice, and getting comfortable playing a sport with older kids are all things that he was prepared for before he even stepped foot on the varsity football field.
"I think the more a kid competes, the better they'll get. That's why I love when kids do play other sports and don't just stick to one particular sport."
Nelson has been the most impressed with Worthington's work ethic since putting on the pads this fall and believes that has been a contagious side effect within the program.
"He's a hard worker, and he's a great kid," he said. "The kids on the team respect him, as evidenced by him being voted a team captain. He's got a great work ethic, he's just a genuinely nice kid and he's a leader. He's everything you would want a football player to be, and we're just lucky he's a talented athlete on top of that.
"And he's a pretty big kid, too."
After a few carries against Reeths-Puffer in the season opener, Nelson and coaching staff knew they needed to give Worthington the ball more.
"We realized pretty early on in that Reeths-Puffer game that we needed to give him some opportunities as a ball carrier," he said. "We also had to be cognizant of the fact that he starts on both sides of the ball for us, so we had to mix in some other guys in there and not give him the ball 50 times a game.
"The good thing is we have guys like Owen Krizan, Will McWatters and Collin Takas, who are capable of making plays, as well."
With a roster comprised primarily of juniors, a lot of positions on the team were up for grabs at the start of fall camp. Instead of shying away from the competition, the collective group met the challenge head-on.
"The junior class really embraces that sense of competition, and that's made our team better this year," said Nelson. "They knew coming into the fall camp that every job was an open competition, and that made every practice important.
"Kids are still competing for jobs as we tweak things here and there with our lineups and packages. We want to put the best 11 players out on the field at a time because that gives us the best chance to win. Our senior class has also done an excellent job of embracing that and supporting the incoming juniors and it's created a positive environment.
"I could tell there was a difference in the attitude around the program this summer, when kids were showing up to put in the work. They were taking summer conditioning and 7-on-7 camps more seriously and getting on the guys that weren't showing up. As soon as we started the first day of practice, the coaches were just thinking, ‘Man, this is how we want it to be all the time.' Now, we are all on the same page and the results during games are a direct result of these kids' hard work and commitment."
READY FOR THE O-K RED
The Buccaneers' next milestone is winning their first conference game since defeated West Ottawa (42-23) on Sept. 16, 2016.
The Hudsonville Eagles (2-0) have also had a strong start to the season and will come into tonight's showdown at Gene Rothi Field (7 p.m. kickoff) looking to play their own style of smashmouth football.
"Hudsonville is a solid team, they are well-coached, and they have an exceptional running back that is the key to their offense," said Nelson. "He is always falling forward, he hits the holes hard and they have a few big guys up front that can really move people.
"So, defensively, we need to make sure we are reading our keys before plays and recognizing formations and flowing to the ball. They are a good, solid team and they've had a couple of big wins already. We have to be physical right out of the gate and go after them.
"They are a lot like us in the sense that they are going to try and pound the ball in the run game, but they might throw the ball around more than we do.
"Offensively, we have to get first downs and sustain drives. I think field position and time of possession are going to be huge in this game. Both teams have a lot of two-way starters, so whoever is able to maintain the ball will have a good chance at winning."
Getting to Know
Favorite Team: Detroit Lions
Favorite Athlete: Le'Veon Bell
Favorite Food: Dinosaur Chicken Nuggets
Favorite Music: Classic Rock
Other Sports: Baseball
Pre-Game Ritual: YouTube Pump-Up Videos
Favorite Video Game: Old-school Pac Man
Favorite Pizza: Mancino's