AUGUSTA —Since 2000, the Hillsdale Hornets high school football program has reached 19 playoffs, including three regional championship appearances and one semifinal appearance. The team had just two losing seasons since 2001: 2016 and 2021.
The 2021 Hornets campaign saw the team finish with a 3-6 overall record. The Hornets had their share of highs-and-lows, including a barn-burner comeback to beat Blissfield 38-35. The Hornets rolled over Columbia Central and Onsted, and they battled region-runner-up Clinton for their last game of the season.
The Hornets lost several seniors, including Quade Mesarosh, Logan Horn, Carson Loader and Damian Happ. Hillsdale returns multiple starters upfront for the team this season, but the Hornets have other challenges ahead if they want to get back to playoff football. In order to start that journey, the Hornet coaching staff – led by Marc Lemerand – looked to begin this summer’s practices by taking the team back to one of its root traditions.
For the first time since 2017, the Hillsdale Hornet football program traveled to Fort Custer Training Center in Augusta, Mich. to open their team camp for the 2022 season. Fort Custer is a federally owned and state-operated Michigan Army National Guard training facility that is also used by other branches of the armed forces. The Hornets had a tradition of going to Fort Custer for team camp, starting in 2001 and running through 2017. After the 2017 camp, the Hornet program moved to other team activities going forward.
“All the kids had been up here and seen all the stuff,” said coach Lemerand. “It’s important as a team to have that bond. After a couple years, we wanted to come back up and then Covid hit.”
The move was inspired by the coaching staff to reconnect the team and players to an experience that could grow their bonds before starting padded practices. Hillsdale used to head to Fort Custer with 5-7 other teams in the region, but Hillsdale High School is the only one left that makes the trip and is accepted to run their camp at the facility. The experience has brought a lot of lifelong memories for the players that have participated in the trip, and the generations before now have an opportunity to watch their own kids make the trip.
“There’s kids whose dad’s we brought up here,” said Lemerand. “Now, their sons are playing and every one of those dads I’ve talked said ‘I’m so glad you guys are going back up there’. It’s a hard experience for the kids, having no cell phones and basically disconnected from the outside world. But in the end, it has always been beneficial for us.”
In 2001, coach Lemerand and a coaching staff that has been connected for more than 20 years started looking for places to go. They explored different colleges and organized camps, and they also explored tent camping. In the end, Fort Custer offered everything the Hornets were looking for from facilities to the environment. The base provides housing barracks, mess halls and classrooms for more instruction-based sessions of the camp. The base has two courses including a leadership reaction course, which is used to test teamwork and critical thinking. There’s also a regular obstacle course.
The Hornets would partake in both courses during their time at the camp this summer. The entire experience at Fort Custer gives the Hornet football team a contained environment to test their leadership skills and become one unit.
“You are basically locked in,” said Lemerand. “You must come through the guard gate to get in. It’s a good atmosphere for our kids. We aren’t pretending to be in the military; we are a high school football team. We are trying to build a team and trying to get the kids to understand how to be a better person and teammates to each other.”
The coaching staff has prepared for the camp for many seasons during their time at Hillsdale, but each year the coaches take an extra step to be fully prepared to guide the team through the offseason so that they can accomplish their season goals.
“Some people golf and fish together,” said Lemerand. “We coach football together. Preparing for this, we look forward to it and what it will do for our team. The days are long, but the end result is what we are looking for.”
It is the perfect grounds for the coaches to test out which plans will work best to tackle their offseason challenges that the coaching staff have been working on figuring out since the end of last season.
“Every year is different, and you must ask, ‘What do you want to develop this year?’,” said Lemerand. “We had to evaluate where we were at as a team. We had to evaluate each other, and we had to see where the trust factor was amongst the team.”
Since April, the coaches have focused on building trust between the players. Coach Lemerand and the rest of the staff believed last season saw many groups of players working together, but the team wasn’t functioning as one unit. It’s been a process, and they are working on making strides for where they want to be before the start of the regular season.
“The things we have to work on are things we can control like attitude and effort,” said Lemerand. “As you break down your previous season, there’s an offensive and defensive component and you look at what went wrong. We’ve identified those things that went wrong last season and we have been working hard in the offseason to correct those mistakes.”
13 seniors return to the team this season including Kodi Zuver, Clayton Bowditch, Brody Young, Grant Ally, Peter Moore, Jacob Davis, Jordan Barnes, Shaun McGuire, Gavin Wickham, Noah Mosher, Trevor Wagler, Draydon Eckleberry, Jack Granata, Bradley Ellsworth and Thalon Forant.
During Monday’s practice session, the team ran special teams drills that tested conditioning and fundamentals under duress. The Hornets punted from one end of the field, covered the kick and then ran the same punt play back the other direction. The coaches jumped in on the fun, with one commenting “I didn’t know we were racing each other until about the second run-through".
The emotional energy the coaches and players showed on the marching practice field that Monday afternoon has echoed throughout the community. Parent, community and fan support has been strong for their return to Fort Custer. Freshman players and their families had apprehensions about the confined nature of the camp, but that was part of the experience for the team and the players quickly got used to their new surroundings.
Over the past few seasons, since offensive scheme changes were made, the coaching staff has noticed a lot of growth from year to year, and they hope the return to Fort Custer helped create new memories for players and help them connect to the philosophies the coaching staff is trying to install.
“The growth has just continued since last year,” said Lemerand. “There’s a bunch of things we can start to add now that the young group of starters are used to and understand what we are trying to do.”
It can take 3-4 years to implement offensive systems. Coach Lemerand and the staff continued to develop their schemes with coaches from around the state who shared insights that have helped evolve their program. Every season, the coaches begin their work on the next year as soon as possible.
Coach Shaun McCavit says the coaching staff has been working since January to prepare for this season. McCavit says that all the work they have put in this season and previous seasons is all dedicated to the kids and giving them the best possible experience playing high school football and getting the opportunity to go to places like Fort Custer.
“After a while, you recognize why you are out here as a coach,” said coach McCavit. “It’s something that gives us an opportunity to put back and give back to our kids and community. We are going to give everything we have and work hard enough to give our kids the opportunity to make memories that you remember after the wins and loss records fade away.”
The camp concluded Tuesday. The team had to clean the barracks up to military standards. The Hornets hit the practice field on Wednesday and prepped for this weekend’s Blue-Gold scrimmage. Coach Lemerand said the team has no starting spots committed heading into the remainder of practices. The team will begin to take shape over the next two weeks as they switch from non-padded days to live padded practices.
After the Blue-Gold scrimmage this Saturday, the team will have an official scrimmage in Constatine at 10 a.m. Aug. 18 The Hornets hope that the entire summer offseason will help them prepare for the tough schedule to come in the fall. The team will face off against competitors including Jonesville and LCAA rivals like Clinton and Ida. It will be a tough task for the Hornets, but if the energy on display at Fort Custer was an indication of the Hornets’ mindsets, they will be ready to put everything they have on the field on Friday night; while also making lasting memories.
This article originally appeared on Hillsdale Daily News: Hillsdale returns to Fort Custer ahead of the 2022 football season