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Benton Harbor goes back to work after storybook season

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Cornerback Sean Hopkins works during Benton Harbor's practice last week.

Benton Harbor – What can Elliot Uzelac and his staff do as an encore after putting Benton Harbor’s football program in the national spotlight last season?

Well, if Uzelac & Co. can match last year’s accomplishments, the season will have to be considered a big success.

Uzelac came out of retirement at age 74 last summer and took over the program a few weeks before camp, knowing the Tigers were in the midst of an eight-year stretch where they lost 68 of 72 games and were coming off consecutive 0-9 seasons.

It looked like Benton Harbor’s players were just looking for a little direction, right? Well, first the Tigers ended their 20-game losing streak in Week No. 2, then went on to earn their first winning season since 1989 and qualify for the state playoffs for the first time in school history, going on to win a playoff game. They finished at 6-5.

“It was the like the movie ‘The Longest Yard’ when I first got here – lost four footballs (in the trees) right off the bat,” recalled Uzelac while putting his players through a recent practice. “You’d look in their eyes and they had no hope, no confidence, just nothing there. We had to build them up, teach them, coach them up. We had to get them to eat healthy, just take care of them.

“Sure, it was my most gratifying year, the most fun, but definitely the hardest I’ve ever worked, too.”

And, that’s saying a lot since Uzelac was Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year 40 years ago while leading Western Michigan’s program. He was also a coordinator at Michigan and Ohio State, later head coach at Navy.

ESPN took notice of the job Uzelac and his staff – consisting of Jerry Diorio, Lyle Haydon, Matt Mattox, Jeremy Rush and Mike Adams – were doing, jumping on board to feature their historical run. Then, “Good Morning America” followed suit, later paying the team’s way – 34 players and the coaching staff – to go to Disney World in Orlando this past May.

“We felt famous,” said senior Jeremy Burrell, who plays linebacker and running back and put on 25 pounds with the use of the new weight room that Uzelac arranged to have built at the school. “I had never been on a plane before, really afraid to get on it at first. It was so cool hanging out there with my team (at Disney). We really enjoyed ourselves.”

As for the impact of the new weight room, which has 14 stations, Burrell said: “I played at 150 pounds last year, could bench press 225, squat 270 or 280. I bench 315 now, squat 500 and I’ll be playing at 176. It’s unbelievable. I’m in there all the time.

“We’re heading into the season confident, knowing we just have to work hard because we have the talent. Coach (Uzelac) has changed the culture. We’re eating better, concentrating better, working harder. We have great coaches.”

Benton Harbor returns a 1,000-yard rusher in Burrell, a talented cornerback in Sean Hopkins, who intercepted seven passes last year as a sophomore, and two-way lineman Michael Seals-Porter.

But the Tigers also lost a key player in senior linebacker/running back Percy Brown, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a pick-up basketball games just days before training camp started.

“Percy’s an old-school linebacker, an all-conference player and that hurts,” said Uzelac.

But Uzelac is encouraged about the return of sophomore Darius Clayton to Benton Harbor after playing with his older brother at St. Joseph last year.

Elliot Uzelac talks to his players during practice last week.

“He’s going to be a player,” said Uzelac of Clayton, who benches 315 pounds and runs a 4.4 40. “On defense he’s a bear and we’ll have him at rush end.  He'll run the ball too.”

Uzelac now has the Tigers playing as an independent. Benton Harbor once had an enrollment of 1,700 30 years ago, nearly 1,200 in 2007, but now just under 650 while playing against schools nearly twice the size in the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference.

Still, Benton Harbor’s schedule will be challenging. The Tigers opened with a 28-7 win over perennial state power Marshall on Friday, as Burrell went over 100 yards rushing and Clayton had 85.

Now the Tigers face Grand Rapids South Christian in Week 2. South Christian won the Division 4 state championship in 2012 and 2014, losing in the title game in 2013.

“We have a challenging schedule, no question, but we could be very competitive,” said Uzelac. “We’ll have to see how things play out.”