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Former West Michigan Conference football rivals form brotherhood at Hope College

Hope College offensive lineman Cole Harger (66) hoists receiver T.J. McKenzie (30) during a 2021 game. (Photo by Steve Herppich)

HOLLAND – Not so long ago, Terrell Harris did not care much for T.J. McKenzie. The feeling was mutual.

As rivals competing in football and basketball for neighboring Whitehall and North Muskegon, respectively, they didn’t really see eye-to-eye.

“I could not stand any of these dudes when we were in high school. I swear I could not,” Harris said in laughter, referring to his West Michigan Conference brethren, all four of whom are now offensive starters for Hope College’s football team.

Said McKenzie: “Me and Terrell did not get along – not at all.”

“I mean, I’m just really competitive, especially in the conference,” Harris continued. “I really couldn’t stand any of them, but we’re all really close now – especially T.J.”

(Video clips by Scott DeCamp, edited by Zach Zweigle | CatchMark)

These days, Harris and McKenzie often line up next to each other as playmaking receivers for the Flying Dutchmen. Those two players, along with center Cole Harger of Oakridge and left tackle Luke Marsh of Montague, are former conference rivals who now have each other’s backs as difference-makers for Hope.

Earlier this week, the foursome joined a Zoom call for a playful interview with CatchMark SportsNet in a video that can be viewed at the top of this story.

The Montague-Whitehall, Montague-Oakridge and North Muskegon-Whitehall football rivalries were intense for the four 2019 graduates. But now those guys, along with a number of others from the West Michigan Conference, are all pulling in the same direction.

The others from the WMC include: Junior quarterback Gavin Schaeffer (Whitehall), junior receiver Jesse Cook (North Muskegon), junior outside linebacker Bryce Stark (Montague), sophomore receiver Johnny Monette (Montague) and sophomore linebacker Blake Masterman (Oakridge).

That doesn’t even include other players from the Muskegon area on the roster for Hope (6-1 overall), which takes a 3-0 Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association record and shares first place with Trine entering Saturday’s 1 p.m. game at Alma. Hope and Trine square off Nov. 13 in Angola, Ind.

Former standouts from the West Michigan Conference and Muskegon area dot several MIAA rosters. Last Saturday, Hope defeated visiting Adrian, 19-7, and a few former WMC players were on hand for the Bulldogs: Senior inside linebacker Jack MacArthur (Whitehall), sophomore defensive lineman Nate Fair (Oakridge) and sophomore defensive back Ethan Carmean (Oakridge).

Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark

“I have great respect for Muskegon-area football. There’s been a long-standing tradition there, and obviously being a former high school coach, we used to compete a lot with Muskegon-area schools, so I have great respect for the players, coaches and school communities there. They have great pride in their high school football on Friday night, so that’s the first thing,” said Hope head coach Peter Stuursma, the highly successful former coach of East Grand Rapids.

“I think it shows for a lot of area football, but in particular (in the Muskegon area), Friday night is a special tradition in all of those communities.”

Harris, a 5-foot-10, 176-pounder, leads Hope with 29 receptions for 413 yards and five touchdowns. He’s tied for the team lead in TD catches with McKenzie (6-3, 218), who has hauled in 17 passes for 363 yards.

Meanwhile, Harger (6-2, 268) and Marsh (6-5, 304) help to anchor the Dutch O-line.

“I think it’s cool, too, because (the West Michigan Conference is a) relatively small conference in the state size-wise and so to show that we still have players coming out of here to go to the next level and play, that’s just a really cool thing to see and that we’re contributing,” Harger said.

Hope College offensive linemen Cole Harger (66) and Luke Marsh (73) line up next to each other during a game against Adrian College Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium in Holland, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

As previously alluded, Harris and McKenzie have good chemistry, as do Harger and Marsh.

You might not have imagined that three years ago.

“Honestly, I probably hated Terrell more (than Harger), if I’m going to be honest, just because he’s from Whitehall – that’s it,” said Marsh, who began his college football career at Division II Grand Valley State before transferring to D-III Hope.

“Obviously come here and I’m good friends with all of them, so it’s just a good, different aspect because you really get to actually know the people.”

Stuursma believes that Hope College is a good option for players from the Muskegon area because Holland is far enough away, but close enough to be reachable by parents and families. He has every intention of keeping that pipeline open.

Stuursma said that Harris, McKenzie, Harger and Marsh have a “great way about them.”

Hope College receivers Terrell Harris (6) and T.J. McKenzie (3) sit by each other on the bench during a break in the game against Adrian College Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Holland, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

Stuursma considers Harris as dynamic as anybody he’s coached at the receiver position, while he said that McKenzie possesses a big body with strength, athleticism and good hands. The Dutch coach said Harger is smart, tough and has really developed his body, while he classified Marsh as “absolutely dominating” and noted he has a chance to be the most decorated offensive tackles to play at Hope.

Growing up in football-crazed communities and traditionally strong programs give players like Harris, McKenzie, Harger and Marsh a leg up when they transition to college football, according to Stuursma.

“If you really trace this all the way back – I’m starting to date myself a little bit — but (Detroit Free Press sports reporter) Mick McCabe and I talked about this 15 years ago: When you really look at schools that make those (deep playoff) runs and consistently make the run, certainly they have wonderful players, certainly they have great traditions, certainly they have the community support. But it really is important within the community on Friday nights – they’re really, really special,” Stuursma said.

“They really take great pride in Friday nights and what it means and so, because of that, those young men grow up seeing that and they want to be a part of that. They start Rocket football and say, ‘I want to do that someday.’ They look up to those high school players and I think that’s so important to the success of those high schools.”

Hope College football coach Peter Stuursma patrols the sideline during a game against Adrian College Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Holland, Mich. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

Lead writer for CatchMark SportsNet and Web Services leader for CatchMark Technologies.

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