By MIKE ECKERT
KALKASKA — When Zach Hill arrived on varsity as a sophomore two years ago, Kalkaska went 2-7 and closed the season on a six-game losing streak.
Whenever his senior season ends this fall, Hill will no doubt be leaving the program on a much higher note.
Kalkaska enters this week's game against undefeated Grayling at 5-1 and in the hunt for the Lake Michigan Conference title. One more win, and the Blazers will clinch their first playoff berth since 2002.
Hill has been a big part of the success.
"I've had a pretty good season so far," Hill said. "Everyone worked really hard in the offseason, which helped. Everybody is buying into the program this year and we've got the community behind us."
Through six games, Hill had 16 total touchdowns. That includes 12 at running back, where he averages 120 yards a game.
"He was up as a sophomore and was probably one of the most athletic kids in the school," Blazers coach Jeremy Wilkinson said. "Last year, he was probably the most athletic kid and this year he's far and away the most athletic. He hasn't really done anything different, because he's always been a leader, even when he was a sophomore. You wouldn't expect it from a sophomore to be a leader on a varsity team, but he was. And every year he's always worked hard. This year being his senior year, he's put the team on his back, but he hasn't changed much since his sophomore year."
While Hill's role as a leader hasn't changed much, his spot in the offense has. After playing quarterback as a sophomore and junior, he's moved to running back this year with the emergence of junior quarterback Will Noble.
"It's nice that we had the junior quarterback, Will Noble, come up," Hill said. "He stepped in after I played quarterback the last two years. With him at quarterback, he's got a stronger arm. And for me to be able to run the ball with (Kaleb) Hauser, that's really good for us too."
Hill can receive — he has 14 catches for 273 yards — as well as run out of the backfield.
"It's real big to be able to move him everywhere," Wilkinson said. "He can catch the ball, he can throw the ball. Teaming him with Kaleb Hauser, you have two almost unstoppable forces. You have the No. 1 and No. 2 athletes in your school in the backfield at the same time."
Elsewhere, Hill has made 44 tackles on defense to go with six interceptions. He's kicked 21 extra points and a field goal and only comes off the field for punts.
Now, Hill and his Blazers teammates are eyeing that playoff berth.
"Making the playoffs would be huge," Hill said. "Last year, we were 4-2 heading into our last three games, but we lost all three of them. It was a heartbreaker. This year, we're sitting at 5-1 and I feel like if we keep playing football the way we've been playing it, we'll be well off.
"We've got some tough games. Grayling is tough and Elk Rapids is always a tough game for us because it's a rivalry game. We have Frankfort in between them, and we've never played them, so we have nothing on them."
Kalkaska's just seconds away from a 6-0 start. In week three, the Blazers had just taken a 21-19 lead at Boyne City with under a minute to play when the Ramblers Maceo Vroman returned a kick 95 yards for a touchdown.
"You go back to the Boyne City game, it's still sickening to think that we were 33 seconds away, we should already have our sixth win," Wilkinson said. "Not to take anything away from Boyne City, but we lost that ourselves. We would much rather not have to depend on three games to get one win. The sooner the better. And obviously the more wins you get, the better chances you have of hosting a game. Our mentality is one game at a time. 'Let's get the win now and let everything else fall into place.'"
Hill is getting some looks to play college at the next level. And he'll play hockey and baseball before he graduates from Kalkaska. For now though, he's focused on the resurgence of the Blazers.
"We secured our first winning season since 2002, which is huge to get this program moving in the right direction," Wilkinson said. "Each year, it seemed like we'd almost be there, but we wouldn't get there. So it's just huge to get it. It's great for the community and great for the kids.
"The support is huge. Since I've taken over four years ago, the support has increased every year. You see more and more people out with the football apparel, more and more people out at the games. Being at the middle school, you see these kids come in on Mondays and all they talk about is the plays our varsity kids made. It's helping our program, because these kids want to be part of a winning team."