Experience, on and off the pitch, gives the Freeland Falcons a footballing advantage

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FREELAND, MI – There are times Alex Duley will never forget, times that can transform a special teams freshman into a senior leader.

There was his first tackle in his first playoff game in his first season of high school football, a crushing tackle that gets more and more “crushing” every year.

But there’s also the day her mom Kim Duley asked all of her kids to sit down, telling them their dad, longtime baseball coach Pete Duley, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The challenges of the past four years have created a maturity that plays to Freeland’s advantage as the Falcons head to the Division 4 high school district football game at 7 p.m. Friday against Goodrich.

Duley is one of three seniors – along with Bryson Huckeby and Jacob Kundinger – who played as freshmen in the 2018 playoffs. He is also one of 18 seniors on the team.

“Having that on your team is invaluable,” said Freeland coach Kevin Townsend. “They’ve been through all the situations. They have seen it all. They are able to be leaders for young players. Having that gives us the ability to throw just about anything at them.

“After the games they will go into the water and start talking to each other about what went wrong, what to do and how to do it. When players have that understanding and that ability, it’s a huge advantage.

Duley, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver, has a little more understanding than most, both on and off the field. Having a father who is a coach helps. Pete Duley has been a baseball coach for over 20 years at Bridgeport, Birch Run in Freeland. He is currently an assistant coach of the football team and participates in the baseball program.

But Alex Duley, along with his little brother Daniel Duley and older sisters Claire and Noelle, took a crash course in life experience when Kim Duley reunited the family after Christmas in 2018. Pete and Kim Duley received the news of the doctor at Christmas. Eve, but they decided to wait until after Christmas to tell the children.

“When my mom asked us to sit down because she had something to tell us, you start to worry,” said Alex Duley. “When I heard, I wasn’t scared or sad. I was shocked. You don’t think something like this will happen to your dad. I mean, he’s your dad. It does not happen.

But he did. And the family persevered while Duley underwent treatment. Duley is a counselor for Freeland Schools.

“It was bad, but we didn’t really dwell on it as a family… and I didn’t really think about it or really think about it,” Duley said. “We were so busy as a family, with kids at school and playing sports. We always went somewhere. We were too busy to think about it.

“I remember having chemotherapy treatment one day, then going to baseball practice and then graduation. Who has had time to feel sorry for themselves? I think it helped. We were always on the move, we always had something to do.

And that hasn’t slowed down his sons, who are athletes in three sports, starting out on the football, basketball and baseball teams. Alex Duley won first-team Tri-Valley Conference football honors as second and junior, adding second-team basketball honors as a junior.

In 2018 and 2019, injuries forced Freeland’s college football team to use more subclasses than usual, creating a large inventory of experienced players.

“I was on the JV team, and for the playoffs we are still raising the players on the JV team,” said Alex Duley. “So I was in the JV team in the first year and I was able to make the playoffs. I got to play in the kickoff teams and I remember crushing a guy for my first tackle against Chippewa Hills.

Freeland beat Chippewa Hills, 16-6, with Huckeby starting as a freshman quarterback. The Falcons lost the next game to Swan Valley, 55-10. But in 2019, Freeland reached the quarter-finals before losing to Kingsley, 43-21. In 2020, the Falcons advanced to the Division 5 semifinals before falling to future champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central.

“So we have a quarterback with 34 games under his belt, 34 games of playing experience,” Townsend said. “He saw just about everything. He can read tusks. We have a group of very experienced seniors, but we also have a good group of sophomores and juniors starting alongside them.

Yet Alex Duley enjoys the advantage of experience, age and maturity… physically and mentally.

“As a senior, you are the big dog and you don’t have to worry so much about getting killed by someone,” said Alex Duley. “At 18, I’m stronger and faster. It’s a question of mentality. No one is older than you. Mentally, you are much sharper and stronger. Our whole group is livelier and stronger.

“It’s a huge advantage. We have been playing together since the fifth year. We already have the chemistry. Even off the pitch, it connects us even more.

Freeland head coach Pete Duley chats with his team in the first game of their doubles program against Reese on Monday, May 23, 2016 at Freeland High School. Duley also coached at Bridgeport and Birch Run.Saginaw News, MLive.com

And everyone knows Pete Duley, whether in his role as an advisor or a coach. The challenges of the Duley family also bring the class closer together.

Duley had another health scare in August after his COVID vaccination. He contracted COVID and was hospitalized for two weeks.

“It was worse than cancer, being in the hospital for half a month,” said Pete Duley. “No one could come to see me. I couldn’t go anywhere. I had oxygen, which made my throat dry and made it difficult to talk.

“Not being able to go anywhere or see anyone… that was difficult.”

Duley, however, will be sidelined on Friday, ready to help the Falcons.

“I was a little out of breath the other day when I was giving a presentation to a class, but overall I’m feeling pretty good,” said Pete Duley. “I’m excited for Friday, excited for the playoffs. It’s going to be fun to experience this with the other coaches and the players.

“I’m happy to be here, happy to do what I can to help.

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