This is a column by Scott DeCamp.
NORTON SHORES, MI – From the time Matt Koziak played football for Mona Shores in 1992 and 1993, until the moment he took over as head coach at his alma mater in 2011, the Sailors managed two winning seasons in 19 years.
Football has long been a source of pride in Muskegon County, whose blue-collar mentality is worn like a badge of honor. Pound-for-pound, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better county for football in Michigan.
But Mona Shores was not measuring up. The Sailors were viewed as soft. It was a stigma that Koziak knew his program had to shake.
“Right when we got here (to coach), I remember saying that,” Koziak said. “I think the word ‘cake eaters’ was used quite a bit.”
Well, guess what: They’re still cake eaters – just not by the original definition.
Say hello to the 2019 Division 2 state champions, the Mona Shores Sailors.
Two days after their 35-26 state-finals upset victory over heavyweight Detroit King Friday at Ford Field, the Sailors had their cake and ate it, too – literally. The cake served during a community celebration Sunday night at Mona Shores High School’s Sailor Center read “Congratulations Team 57, G.R.I.T., State Champions!”
G.R.I.T. is the acronym that was coined by Koziak & Co. last January. It stands for “Grind. Resilience. Intrepid. Together.” They could not have come up with a more apt description of this team.
The 2014 and 2018 Sailors squads knocked on the proverbial championship door. The 2019 team kicked it in. The Sailors did it by overcoming adversity and long odds, despite being labeled as the third-most talented team among the three from Mona Shores that have made it to Ford Field in the past six seasons.
The Sailors believed when very few did. That’s mental toughness. Nothing “soft” about Mona Shores’ program these days. No “cake eaters” in this group.
“Talent doesn’t win state championships, I’ll tell you that right now. Talent does not win state championships,” Koziak told the large crowd assembled for the community celebration, driving home the G.R.I.T. theme.
Mona Shores is now part of “the club” in Muskegon County, joining seven other schools with state football titles during the Michigan High School Athletic Association playoff era: Muskegon Catholic Central (12), Muskegon (6), Ravenna (4), Oakridge (3), Montague (2), Reeths-Puffer (1) and Orchard View (1).
It’s been a journey getting to this point for Koziak and Mona Shores. It started in 2011, when Koziak was hired by Mona Shores after he had built his resume under Tony Annese at Muskegon (assistant in 2004, offensive coordinator 2006-08) and Muskegon Heights (offensive coordinator 2005), then as Big Reds head coach in the 2009 season.
When Koziak returned to Mona Shores, he was determined to change the culture. He was tired of people bad-mouthing his school.
Months before the 2011 season, a scrawny eighth-grader kept showing up to weight-room sessions. His name was Tyree Jackson. It was a new day in Mona Shores football and Koziak demanded players in his program to toe the line. Jackson did that while some others did not, so that fall Koziak took a calculated risk and started the 13-year-old freshman quarterback on the varsity team as 5-foot-9, 140-pounder.
Low roster numbers were an issue at that time, and Jackson, Koziak and the Sailors took their lumps. Mona Shores went 1-8 in 2011 and 4-5 in 2012.
The breakthrough came in 2013, Jackson’s junior season, when the Sailors qualified for the playoffs for the first time ever and finished 7-3.
By 2014, Jackson and the Mona Shores program exhibited accelerated growth. Jackson shot up to 6-5, 210 pounds, and he captained the Sailors (12-2) to their school’s first state finals berth. Mona Shores fell to Warren De La Salle, 44-8, as Jackson played hobbled after he dislocated his kneecap the week before.
Despite the loss, the standard was set. Mona Shores returned to Ford Field four years later. The Sailors (12-2) lost to De La Salle again, 29-16, but they were getting closer.
On paper, the 2019 team did not appear to be one that would be capturing a state title. The Sailors returned just four starters on offense and only two on defense, nary a Division I prospect on the roster.
But this year’s Mona Shores squad (12-2) embodied the blue-collar mentality that Koziak and his coaches have been aiming to instill since 2011. Undersized but tough-as-nails junior Brady Rose and versatile senior Kolbe Trovinger set the tone, while scores of other Sailors filled their roles to a “T.” All the pieces fit together perfectly.
Mona Shores’ program represents a blend of student-athletes across the socio-economic spectrum. “We’ve got rich white kids, we’ve got rich black kids; we’ve got poor white kids, we’ve got poor black kids; we’ve got middle-of-the-road white kids, we’ve got middle-of-the-road black kids,” said Mona Shores assistant coach Aaron James, a former Muskegon Big Reds player, who helps bring out the blue-collar attitude in the Sailors with his demanding weight-room and training sessions.
Mona Shores used to be viewed as “rich white boys,” in the words of James. Cake eaters, if you will.
Not anymore. Not this Mona Shores state-title team.
“It was a diverse group, and you know, we put all the differences to the side and we just looked to each other and leaned on one another in spite of color, height, size and all of that,” hard-nosed senior running back Tre Hatcher said. “We just looked at it like, we’re here together and we’re brothers, and I think that’s the reason we won this championship.”
Prior to the 2018 season, Koziak introduced blue collared work shirts for his players to wear to football-related functions. That trend continued this season. In fact, Koziak wore his navy-blue work shirt to the postgame press conference last week at Ford Field.
“I actually use the word blue collar and blue-collar families in this district,” Koziak said. “I always thought that was something we wanted to be where we didn’t want anything given to us, anything that we get is going to be earned.”
It’s Mona Shores’ M.O. now. That was Koziak’s main goal when he was hired eight years ago.
Winning a state title, when nobody expected it, that’s icing on the cake.
More Mona Shores coverage:
How did Mona Shores’ unlikely state football title season unfold
Photos looking back at Mona Shores’ 2019 season and state-championship run
Community celebrates Sailors’ state championship
Coach James says Mona Shores told anybody who would listen that Mona Shores would win a state title
Little Mona Shores backup QB Brady Rose a star in program’s first state title
Jaylen Hopson plays big role for Mona Shores, wins state title in honor of late father
5 takeaways from Mona Shores’ upset victory over Detroit King
Michigan high school football Division 2 finals: Mona Shores stuns King