(WXMI) — When the OK Conference realigned heading into the 2020-21 school year, one of the biggest changes occurred with the OK Green.
Three teams from the division would move to the OK Blue in Holland Christian, Hamilton and Unity Christian to join the likes of Spring Lake, Coopersville, Fruitport, Allendale and West Catholic.
Now, heading into 2021, there should be a lot of attention on the OK Blue division with the returning experience for every program.
Unity Christian has become a powerhouse football program over the past several seasons, making the playoffs each of the past seven but this season, it appears the Crusaders will have quite a bit of competition.
The OK Blue stands out, at least right now in the preseason, due to the amount of returning starters from solid teams a season ago.
Spring Lake finished 5-3 with a playoff win in 2020 and allowed 17 points per game last season. The Lakers will now return eight starters from that defense this fall, as well as eight more starters on offense.
Hunter and Travis Throop are two-way starters that return on the offensive and defensive lines while the backfield is also loaded for the Lakers with runningbacks, senior Christian Folkert and junior Alex Lee. Dan Start's team will also have weapons at the wide receiver position with Derrick Paggeot and Andrew VonWahlde coming back as senior quarterback Jackson Core looks to take advantage of that in his first season starting under center.
"This team has a tremendous amount of potential but potential has never won a game," said head coach, Dan Start, "as long as we continue to work to be better today than we were yesterday, the sky is the limit with this group."
Spring Lake is just one example of the depth of the conference; West Catholic is another team that is confident after a big jump in 2020.
The Falcons would go 1-8 overall in 2019 under first-year head coach Justin Michalowski but improved the win total by five to finish 6-2 in a shortened season in 2020.
Now, Michalowski's group is experience driven with eight returning starters on defense and five more on offense, including quarterback Noah Arsulowicz.
West allowed 13 points or less in five of its eight games last fall and with All-Conference players like Tim and Kyle Kloska, Michael Ignotoski and John Kohane all returning as well as Arsulowicz at safety, the sky is the ceiling.
"The OK Blue this year will be a lot tougher," Kyle Kloska told FOX 17. "Coopersville and Fruitport have a lot of good players and athletes and obviously Spring Lake and Unity Christian have always had good athletes and teams, so it'll be fun."
The conference is also made up of a pair of three win teams from last season to keep tabs on throughout the 2021 campaign, the first being Coopersville.
Ed Kaman enters year five at the helm and returns 12 starters including two-way starters Tim Allen and Tim Cumberworth.
Prior to a 17-point loss to Whitehall in the team's second playoff game, the Broncos would win three out of their last four games, including a 26-14 win in the playoff opener against Sparta.
"We’re excited about this group of kids," Kaman said about this year's roster. "We have a nice mix of experienced upperclassmen and hard-working young athletes. The leadership in our senior class will be key to the development of our team."
Another three-win team last season was Allendale, where Ben Burk enters another season at the helm.
The Falcons got off to a hot 3-0 start to the 2020 season, outscoring opponents by 52 combined points in those games.
However, after a 38-36 loss to Spring Lake in week four, Allendale would struggle, scoring 12 points or less in their final three games, including a shutout loss to Forest Hills Eastern in the playoff opener.
Despite the end of last season, the Falcons return one of the state's most dynamic players in Cole DiPiazza who will play mostly runningback again but could move around to several different positions this fall.
Fruitport is a confident group returning 16 starters including All-Conference quarterback Gavin Reames who accounted for more than 1,700 yards of total offense and 17 touchdowns a season ago.
Nate Smith enters his fourth year at the helm with his most experienced group yet, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Reames will have a chance to have another special year at quarterback with .ll-Conference wide outs Camden Farrell and Cody Nash returning, who accounted for 12 touchdowns in 2020.
6'4", 265-pound left tackle Kaiden Bell also returns along the offensive line and Coach Smith is excited about the expectations this fall with his first group to come through the program.
"In the first high school game these seniors played when they were freshmen, they only had 11 guys and they played like warriors. This group has learned and grown from the teams and leadership before them and they are prepared to take our program to the next level. The juniors we have are talented and tough and many have been battle-tested, I love our team and program," Smith told FOX 17.
Hamilton is coming off of back-to-back 4-5 finishes in Phil Koops' first two seasons at the helm.
The Hawkeyes have a whopping 24 seniors in the program, many of whom have played in some big games, including a 10-7 playoff win over Godwin Heights last fall.
Four of those senior leaders are quarterback and defensive back, Quinton Sorens who returns an outstanding weapon in fellow senior and wide receiver Zach Boerman. At linebacker, Eagan Tamminga and Spencer VanderBrink return to lead the way up the middle.
"Our quarterback is our undeniable leader and possibly our best player. Quinton broke his leg early in game two last year and it hurt us badly, but had 230 rushing yards in five quarters of play last year," Koops told FOX 17.
Hamilton scored 46 points in a big week one win over Fruitport in 2020 with a healthy Sorens before averaging just 15 games in the next seven without him (excluding a 2-0 forfeit victory over Unity Christian in the playoffs).
There's a real chance Hamilton's offense comes to life again in 2021 and the Hawkeyes could battle for an OK Blue title.
"The question will be if we can finish games in big moments? Or are those moments still a little too big for us?" Koops said when asked about the keys to the team's season.
Holland Christian is coming off of a winless season in 2020 but can't be counted out to pick up a couple of wins in conference play.
Head coach Chris Kuipers enters his fifth season at the helm and will return a lot of players who have been through the fire.
One team that has been battle tested in Unity Christian, where head coach Craig Tibbe returns 10 total starters from the unbeaten team last season before COVID-19 ended the season in round two of the playoffs.
The Crusaders allowed seven points or less in four of their seven games last season and return a lot of the production in the trenches, including Ryan Shinabery, Kolby Headley and Jonny Bosma.
Not to mention, other two-way starters in quarterback and defensive back, Cam Chandler and runningback and linebacker Micah Bush.
"We are looking for our seniors to step up and take charge and for the juniors to be ready to step in as they adjust to the varsity level," Tibbe said. "We have good depth in most positions, which is rare for us. We will be hoping to rotate guys through if they can prove they deserve to be on the field."
Unity had no problem winning the OK Blue last fall, with the team's closest games coming as a 17-point win over Spring Lake in week one and an 18-point win over West Catholic in week two.
The Crusaders outscored the conference 312-71 last fall, but 2021 may be a bit tougher with what everyone returns.
Keep an eye on the OK Blue this fall. Though Unity Christian is the obvious favorite, anything can happen with the outstanding coaches and talent in the conference.