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Benton Harbor continues amazing rise under Uzelac

David Goricki
The Detroit News

After the 2010 season, Elliot Uzelac decided he was through coaching football.

He had coached at St. Joseph High since 2006 after a career that began in 1965 as a graduate assistant at Bowling Green.

He made stops in high school, college and the NFL. He compiled a 48-64 record in college with stops at Navy and Western Michigan. So he earned the right to retire.

But before last season, Uzelac was asked to return to the coaching ranks — at Benton Harbor, which hadn’t had a winning season since 1989.

And worse, the school had lost 68 of 72 games dating to 2007.

So, all Uzelac did his first season was lead Benton Harbor to a 6-5 mark and its first playoff victory in history. And the reward? The program being showcased on ESPN, and “Good Morning America” officials took the players and coaches to Disney World.

For an encore, Uzelac has Benton Harbor undefeated, ranked No. 17 in The News Super 20 poll, and hosting Grand Rapids South Christian (5-4) on Friday in a Division 4 pre-district game.

“I knew we’d be much better than last year because we had a full year with them,” said Uzelac, 75. “We had the weight room all year long. We had a lot of training, good film sessions with them. I just think it’s a combination of a lot of great things. ...

“The kids are more confident and it’s just like anything else, when you get going, it starts to roll.”

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Still, it’s impressive that Benton Harbor is unbeaten considering three of Uzelac’s top players didn’t return — an offensive lineman who needed to work; linebacker/running back Percy Brown, who suffered a season-ending knee injury days before the start of practice; and an early injury to defensive end/running back Darius Clayton.

But Uzelac has gotten contributions from elsewhere.

Denny Brown, who played safety last year, has played well at quarterback, and running back Jeremy Burrell has rushed for 1,700 yards. Opponents have stayed away from cornerback Sean Hopkins, who intercepted eight passes as a sophomore last season.

Burrell, especially, has made an impact on Uzelac.

“He’s doing a great job and has great acceleration,” Uzelac said. “He knows when to accelerate, knows when to glide. He’s a very smart, instinctive runner and very seldom does a person get a solid hit on him.”

As for Brown, Uzelac has the utmost confidence in his ability to run the offense.

“I watched him play basketball and he had really quick feet and quick hands, one game he had five steals,” Uzelac said. “Then, I watched him play baseball and he was smart and controlled the game as a catcher, great throw down to second, and I said this guy could be a really good quarterback.

“We had to get him technically sound. ... He’s improved dramatically and he’s an excellent option quarterback and he’s developed into a good passer.”

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

twitter.com: @DavidGoricki