By MIKE ECKERT
New coach, new faces, new league.
The Traverse City Wolves launch their third season tonight, amidst numerous changes, when they host the Lakeshore Cougars at Thirlby Field.
Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
It will mark the coaching debut for Rick Micham, the team’s defensive coordinator the last two seasons.
It will also be the Wolves first game in the Great Midwest Football League. Traverse City was previously in the North American Football League.
Team owner Daniel Skibbe talked about the changes and the upcoming season with the Record-Eagle.
Q: Lots of changes going into the year, what’s the one you’re most excited about?
A: The thing I think I’m most excited about is the change in leagues, due to the marketability and the other reasons why we changed.
Q: One of the things that stands out about that is now you’re playing Michigan teams. How does that help the organization with travel, and creating rivalries with towns that aren’t too far away?
A: Well, the thing that appealed to us about the NAFL was that it was a bigger league. We could go outside the state and play Indianapolis, Nashville. Those were fun trips for us. We have stories these guys could tell forever. But the smaller league, the travel does play a part into it with finances, being a small business. However, that wasn’t the main attraction to the league. Our main attraction was what the NAFL lacked in its new ownership — marketability and advancement for players and teams. That’s what we wanted out of this league, was marketability and exposure for our players, because that’s what they’re playing this game for. If not for the love of the game, it’s to advance to the next level. The NAFL just did not live up to the things we expected.
Q: How’s the competitive level compare to the NAFL? Is it equivalent to the top teams from last year?
A: I think it will be. It’ll be like Indianapolis, the Capital City Stealth. The teams we battled with. You won’t have the teams like the Tri-City Thunder, where we’re winning 56-0. There’s going to be no romps. These guys know each other off the field. And the competition level in Michigan is strong. This is a great chance for all of Michigan to see all of the talent, not only in the urban cities, but also in Traverse City.
Q: One of the other changes is you have a new coach.
A: That one came as a surprise. Brad’s resignation came to the organization around Thanksgiving. We knew with coach Haney gone, it would take away the roster we had brought in from downstate, because they don’t live up here. We have to go with what we have. The good thing is, we become more of a northern Michigan team, like we were in the first year. I think that will help our fans recognize our players a little more too.
Q: So you bring in Rick Micham as coach. What does he bring to the table?
A: I’ve known coach Micham for years, back to the days in Elk Rapids when we both coached out there. He’s been our defensive coordinator the last two years, including the first year when I was coach. At the time (a year ago when the head coaching job was open) I didn’t feel he was ready for that step. With coach Haney resigning, it opened the door and I felt he took the steps needed to be head coach. I’m not talking off the field. A head coach has some swagger. Those are the things you look for. It’s a learning experience and he’s up to the challenge.
Q: With his experience as your defensive coordinator, I imagine you look at that as the strength of your team.
A: We do. Offense wins games, defense wins championships. We’ve had one of the top 10 defenses in the league. We’re retaining most of our players. ( Defensive back) Tim Ohlert is returning for a third season. So is (safety) Tyler Alpers, (linebacker) Ryan Brown. Those are three All-Stars. We do lose Darnell Wilson to retirement, which hurts the defensive pressure, but it opens the door for some, like the Sitkiewicz brothers out of Gaylord. We feel they’re younger and hungrier than some of the guys we lost.
R-E: How about some of the impact players on offense?
DS: We did sign Davonn Cooper, who played for the Lakeshore Cougars, ironically. One of the things that drew him was the fan base we have and the way the Wolves help players get to the next level. He signed as a running back. We also signed (wide receiver) Emilio Bocardo of Elk Rapids. Quarterback Doug Elliott out of Inland Lakes has been announced as our starting quarterback.
R-E: How important is it to mix some of those older guys with the young guys right out of high school?
DS: You can’t really describe it in words. You can only talk so much as an owner or a coach. But the players that have been in those battles, they’ll tell them ‘this isn’t high school.’ They don’t baby them with their mentoring. They’re going to get a crash course if they don’t pay attention. The experience, if they can grasp it at 18, 19, 20 years old, not only can we get them to the next level, but if they do not get that look, we know that they’re going to be good players for us for a very long team.
R-E: You’re starting things a solid month ahead of when you would’ve with the NAFL. How does that impact the organization?
DS: On the business side, it is a nightmare. We have new home uniforms we’ll be unveiling (today). Then it’s getting that done, and six weeks earlier. It’s a big difference. But the advantage with this league and the schedule change is the end of the year. Our regular season ends Aug. 13. The last possible home game we could have this season would be a Sept. 10 conference championship. When the high school, college and pro seasons started, our attendance dropped drastically. Our attendance in the playoff game against Indianapolis was a quarter of what it was in August when the same team came to town. It was because we played (the playoff) on Michigan vs. Michigan State night. The way this season sets up with the regular season and even the playoffs, we’re only into Week 2 of the high school season.
R-E: Final thing. From as an organization going into your third year, do you feel like you have the kinks worked out?
DS: Yes. It’s funny. A month ago I was sitting with the board and we were talking and saying how much it’s under control. We know what we have to do. It’s our second year at Thirlby Field. We’ve been in the playoffs. We feel like we’re ready to take that next step. We’re helping the community and getting out more, because people are starting to recognize us. That helps a lot. We’re not answering the question ‘who are the Wolves?’ Now it’s ‘you’re the Wolves, when does the season start?’ That’s what we want in a football town and why Traverse City is the ideal town for us.