GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids High School football team was young in 2018, and as a result struggled some.

However, by year’s end the Thunderhawks were playing their best football of the season with an extremely young lineup. As a result, Grand Rapids will return 19 starters from last year’s team and with that one key year of experience under his athletes’ belts, Thunderhawk head coach Greg Spahn can foresee improvement for the 2019 season.

The season opens on Thursday, Aug. 29, when Grand Rapids will be on the road at Big Lake in a 7 p.m. game.

“At the end of last season we had 19 starters that were sophomores or juniors, and that number was pretty solid throughout the year,” said Spahn, who is entering his sixth season as head coach of the team. “We had some growing pains last year but those kids got some valuable experience and the vast majority of them are back.

“Last year was a down year and we are looking forward to fixing that and moving forward this year.”

With the experienced starters returning, Spahn said he expects the Thunderhawks to play for each other and not just with each other.

“I expect that the kids have a pretty good bond and with the experience coming back hopefully they understand what it takes to be successful,” Spahn explained. “I think we have a good group that commits itself in the off-season. Almost to a man they have done absolutely everything they could to get better and to improve every day.”

The coach said the Thunderhawks performed well in a recent scrimmage where he said the execution and the effort was good.

“We tell them all the time that we can fix mistakes but we can’t fix effort and we had tremendous effort on Saturday and really good execution too,” Spahn said. “So, these guys are eager. The junior class in particular has had success in the past and they want to return Grand Rapids football to what we were.”

All-Conference returnees for Grand Rapids include senior Hadyn Anderson at outside linebacker, tight end and A-back and junior outside linebacker/running back John Bonner, while receiving honorable mention was junior cornerback Derek Erdman. Others expected to contribute include junior running back/free safety Caden Hofstad, junior defensive back/receiver Grant Giffen, senior receiver/defensive lineman Dawson Broberg, senior receiver Dain Walters, junior center Noah Schmoll, junior guard Nick Dunnell, sophomore tackle J.D. Weston, junior tackle Nathan Roberts, senior lineman/fullback Brock Holm, junior defensive back Dane Kennedy, junior defensive back Trent Johnson, and sophomore linebacker Andy Thomsen, among others.

“We are continuing to develop our depth,” said the coach. “We are pretty lucky to have all these guys back. They dedicated themselves in the off-season to really improve and I think every one of them is a multi-sport athlete.”

Spahn said the success that Grand Rapids sees this year will depend on its effort and how it responds to adversity.

“It is a game of ups and downs and if we can be steady and respond in a positive way to those adverse events that happen, I think we are going to be OK,” Spahn said. “We tell the kids they have to be relentless for four to six seconds and you have to go as fast as you can from Point A to Point B doing your job. If we can do those things, if we can be great at the things that don’t take talent, we are going to be pretty tough.”

Bill Kinnunen will serve as defensive coordinator and helps with the offensive line while Troy Gunderson is running the special teams and also helps with defensive backs and receivers. Tom Grossell coaches the linemen, Chad Anderson is strength coach and also helps coach the running backs and inside linebackers, Ben Simula coaches the line and is head junior varsity coach, Reed Larson is assistant junior varsity coach who also will work with running backs and linebackers, Jon Toivonen works with the special teams and receivers, plus Darin Hofstad, Seth Scheuerlein and Mike Valentyn.

“If the first two weeks are any indication, it is going to be an absolute blast to coach these guys,” the coach said. “They are itching to be successful, to do the little things that it takes to be successful. They are all extremely positive and goal-driven and it is going to be fun to coach these guys.”

In its opener Thursday against Big Lake – who has a new head coach, Spahn said Grand Rapids’ success in the game likely will be determined in how well it does in stopping Big Lake’s star running back, senior DeAndre Hill.

“(Hill) is incredibly athletic and fast and he looks to bounce it,” said Spahn. “He is a legitimate talent and we have to be able to contain him. Really, like every game, what it comes down to is having the kids do their jobs. Can we teach them what they need to know and then can they demonstrate that on Thursday?

“If we can do that, we are going to be all right. We have to be able to limit the impact that (Hill) has on the game and then we have to be able to execute our stuff.”

As always, Spahn feels that the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win the game on Thursday.

“The first rule is don’t beat yourself,” Spahn explained. “We have to make sure that we take care of our business. We will try to limit penalties and turnovers – turnovers killed us last year. We have emphasized both creating turnovers and protecting the ball on offense. We need to do everything we can to put us in a position to be successful. Those things take focus and they take effort and they have been tremendous so far in regard to that and we hope it can continue.”

Spahn said it would be nice to start the season with a win but added that it would not crush the Thunderhawks’ season. Still, he said a win would get his team off to a good start.

“We are not making or breaking the season with that first game, but with that being said, I think it is incredibly important to start 1-0 and getting that momentum going and building,” Spahn said. “We look at winning really as a by-product of the process that we have to go through and I think it is important to start 1-0.

“But to do so we have to focus on the things that we can control and that is your attitude, your effort and how you respond to things. Those are intangibles that are incredibly important to winning and to doing the things the way that we want them to be done.”

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