By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Starting with this Saturday's Semifinals, every team left in the MHSAA football playoffs hits the road.
Some face longer trips than others. But all 32 hope their final journeys last long enough to land them at Ford Field for an extended Thanksgiving celebration.
Every Semifinal is Saturday, and all but the two games at Northern Michigan University kick off at 1 p.m. Check out Score Center for all game times and scores as they come in. Four games again will be streamed live on FoxSportsDetroit.com's Prep Zone: Muskegon vs. Caledonia, Battle Creek Harper Creek vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary, Portland vs. Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard and Flint Beecher vs. Detroit Loyola.
Below are expanded previews of all 16 Semifinal matchups, complete with some of the players to watch and what they and their teammates have accomplished so far.
Rockford (10-2) vs. Detroit Catholic Central (8-4) at Battle Creek Central
This is a rematch of arguably last season’s most competitive Semifinal, a 23-20 overtime DCC win. Rockford eliminated favorite Clarkston last week to reach the Semifinals for the 11th time since coach Ralph Munger took over the team in 1992. The Rams again do well what they've always done – run hard with a variety of backs and keep opponents off the scoreboard. Rockford has given up more than 20 points only twice, and no opponent has scored more than 28. Senior Sam Reinke has run for 846 of the team’s 2,604 rush yards behind a line averaging nearly 240 pounds per blocker. They’ll have to stop University of Michigan commit Wyatt Shallman at defensive tackle. Shamrocks senior running backs Anthony Darkangelo and David Houle both played big parts in last season’s Semifinal win and are relied on again. Darkangelo has run for 1,036 yards and 14 scores this fall, with Houle adding 12 touchdowns.
Detroit Cass Tech (10-2) vs. Lake Orion (11-1) at Troy Athens
Reigning Division 1 champion Cass Tech rebounded nicely after losing unexpectedly to Detroit Martin Luther King during the Public School League playoffs. The Technicians are again loaded with talent – defensive back Jourdan Lewis has committed to the University of Michigan and lineman Dennis Finley will sign with Michigan State – and sophomore quarterback Jayru Campbell tied an MHSAA Finals record with five touchdown passes in last season’s win over DCC. Lake Orion won the Division 1 title in 2011 and is playing for its third Ford Field appearance in five seasons. The Dragons only loss this fall was by seven to Clarkston, and they've beaten some heavy hitters the last two weeks in Utica Eisenhower and Macomb Dakota. The defense is giving up only 202 yards per game, while the offense relies on three senior playmakers. Quarterback Derek DeLaura has thrown for 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns, and 6-foot-6 receiver Chaz Miller is averaging 20.3 yards per catch with eight TDs. Running back Jacob Miller has rushed for 1,277 yards and 19 scores.
Muskegon (11-1) vs. Caledonia (9-3) at Hudsonville
Save for a one-point loss to Zeeland East in Week 9, Muskegon has been considered by many all season as the team to beat in this division. Senior running back John King and senior quarterback Jalen Smith have gained plenty of yards, King running for 1,565 and 20 touchdowns and Smith for 854 and 12 scores. Wins over Orchard Lake St. Mary, Rockford, Lowell (twice) and Midland have been most impressive, and teams rushing the ball have had a tremendously tough time gaining only 70 yards per game. This game could be strength on strength, as Caledonia’s rush game chews up yards in bunches – three Fighting Scots have gained at least 830, and four are averaging at least 4.5 yards per carry. Senior quarterback Ryan Zoet doesn't just direct traffic – he’s the team’s leading rusher with 917 yards plus 20 touchdowns on the ground, and he’s thrown for 1,248 yards and five more scores.
Birmingham Brother Rice (10-2) vs. Wyandotte Roosevelt (11-1) at Gibraltar Carlson
Brother Rice won last season’s Division 2 championship on the shoulders of running back Devin Church, and the back carrying the load this time is junior Brian Walker. He’s rushed for 1,352 yards and 20 touchdowns for an offense that’s gained 4,214 yards in total offense. As usual, that’s come against incredible competition, with Brother Rice’s best win likely a 20-14 victory over Detroit Catholic Central. Senior linebacker Jon Reschke, who has committed to Michigan State, leads a defense giving up only 234 yards per game. Aside from a midseason loss to Brownstown Woodhaven that Roosevelt avenged in the District opener, its slate of results includes plenty of single-digit scores for opponents. The Bears held teams to eight or fewer points eight times, and in its 11 wins gave up only seven points per game. Senior quarterback Kevin Matejko has been solid on the other side of the ball with 1,589 yards and 18 touchdowns passing.
DeWitt (10-2) vs. Grand Rapids Christian (11-1) at East Kentwood
Grand Rapids Christian might be the scariest offensive team in Michigan, with 144 of its 498 points coming over the last three weeks against teams that were a combined 26-4. Junior receiver Drake Harris already has committed to Michigan State, and he’s averaging 20.4 yards per catch – which is an even bigger deal when he has 76 catches and 20 that have gone for touchdowns. Getting it there is senior Alex VanDeVusse, who has thrown for 3,226 yards and 35 touchdowns and run for 652 yards and 12 scores. DeWitt is known for all-state quarterbacks, and has a pair of standouts in junior Jacob Heath and sophomore Jacob Johnson. Heath filled in for six games while Johnson was injured during the regular season, throwing for 1,428 yards and 15 scores. Johnson returned in Week 9, and in just more than five games has thrown for 998 yards and 13 touchdowns and run for six more TDs. Senior Ryan Anderson has benefited from both, catching 68 passes for 1,092 yards and 14 scores.
Battle Creek Harper Creek (10-2) vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary's (10-2) at Chelsea
After just missing making Ford Field last season with a four-point Semifinal loss to eventual champion St. Mary's, Harper Creek gets another chance with a rematch. The Beavers aren't scoring as many points as last season, although still 32.5 a game, but they’re giving up only 13 – and getting nearly three turnovers a game, with 17 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. Senior Kasey Carson carries much of the load on offense, with 1,799 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground. St. Mary's won last season running over opponents too, and two of its top three rushers from last season’s Final have been eating up yards again – senior Grant Niemiec has run for 1,587 yards and 23 touchdowns and senior Parker McInnis has gained 1,236 yards with 18 scores. St. Mary's owns wins this season over Division 1 semifinalists Detroit Cass Tech and Detroit Catholic Central.
Comstock Park (11-1) vs. Grand Rapids South Christian (9-3) at Grand Rapids Houseman Field
Comstock Park won its District in coach Mark Chapman’s first season of 2010, added a Regional title last fall, and this season won both plus its league championship – while knocking out favorite Grand Rapids Catholic Central two weeks ago. Senior quarterback Jake Brown is tough to stop, with 1,224 yards and 26 touchdowns rushing and 1,598 yards and 11 TDs passing. South Christian eliminated previously-undefeated Paw Paw and Dowagiac before beating Three Rivers last week, and also is keyed by a talented run/pass quarterback. Sophomore Jon Wassink has rushed for a team-high 713 yards and nine touchdowns and thrown for 2,564 yards and 23 scores.
Saginaw Swan Valley (10-2) vs. Detroit Country Day (10-2) at Ortonville Brandon
After dropping two games midway through the regular season, Swan Valley has dominated, scoring at least 35 points in all of the next six while giving up more than 14 only once. This is its third Semifinal berth in seven seasons, and it’s been made possible in part by the running of sophomore Alex Grace, who has rushed for 2,091 yards and 27 touchdowns. Country Day is looking to get back to the Finals after back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2007 and 2008. Junior quarterback Tyler Wiegers has been tremendously efficient and careful with the ball, completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,822 yards and 18 touchdowns with just one interception. Junior running back Richard Wilson has run for 1,074 yards and 24 scores.
Menominee (11-1) vs. Grand Rapids West Catholic (9-3) at Northern Michigan’s Superior Dome
Former player and assistant coach Joe Noha has done retired longtime coach Ken Hofer proud in bringing Menominee back to the Semifinals in his first season after taking over the program. The Maroons are a one-point loss to Kingsford from being undefeated and are getting contributions from a variety of players led by leading rushers James Brown and Devon Harris, both juniors. West Catholic rebounded from a 1-3 start to reach its third straight Semifinal and beat playoff opponents that were a combined 28-2. The Falcons have a 1,000-yard running back in junior Andy Corey (1,435 yards, 11 TDs), a 2,000-yard quarterback in sophomore Travis Russell (2,143 yards and 20 TDs) and a 1,000-yard receiver in senior David Kuzma (1,084 yards and 11 TDs).
Portland (11-1) vs. Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard (11-1) at Howell
Portland is back in the Semifinals for the first time since the first MHSAA playoffs in 1975, and after knocking off reigning champion Flint Powers last week looks like the team to stop. That lone loss came to reigning runner-up Lansing Catholic, by nine, and Portland also beat Division 3 Semifinalist DeWitt big while going 6-1 against playoff teams so far. Portland is known for tough runners, and junior Jacob Kimmell is the latest; he’s gained a team-high 1,278 yards and scored 17 touchdowns on the ground. But the Raiders can’t look past Gabriel Richard. The Fighting Irish handed Pontiac Notre Dame its first loss of the season in Week 9 and since has cruised by beating its three postseason opponents by a combined 89-6. Senior Ashton Hundley runs behind a sizable offensive line and has gained 1,178 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground.
Shelby (10-2) vs. Ithaca (12-0) at Ferris State
Coming out of the West Michigan Conference, Shelby has seen as strong of competition as any team playing in the small-school divisions. And that makes the success of senior running back Nathan Lentz all the more impressive – he’s run for 1,155 yards and 17 touchdowns, caught 20 passes and scored on four of those, and also has a touchdown apiece off kickoff, punt and interception returns. But the Tigers' defense must be up to the challenge of stopping two-time reigning champion Ithaca, which has won 40 straight games and scores nearly 51 points per. Junior quarterback Travis Smith is one of the best in the state and has thrown for 2,264 yards and 36 touchdowns while running for another 732 yards and 13 scores.
Constantine (10-2) vs. Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (10-2) at Battle Creek Harper Creek
The route taken by reigning runner-up Constantine is comparable to that of any team still alive. It has beaten three playoff opponents that were a combined 29-1 coming into those games. Constantine doesn't trick anyone with its strategy – the team has run for 5,096 yards and thrown for 405, with senior Ben Mallo gaining 1,627 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground and senior Payton White adding 1,324 yards and 27 scores. St. Mary is looking to return to the Finals for its third time in eight seasons and has won at least 10 games for the fourth time in five years. Its imbalance on offensive is similar – 4,133 rushing yards and 174 through the air. But there are a few more people carrying the load with five players running for between 580 and 725 yards, in part because teammates have picked up the slack after the season-ending injury to leading rusher and scorer Josh Czarniowski.
Ishpeming (11-1) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (9-3) at Northern Michigan’s Superior Dome
Ishpeming, looking to get back to Ford Field for the second time in three seasons, has given up more than 14 points only once – in its lone loss, to Negaunee – and has yielded only 24 total in three playoff games. Senior Eric Kostreva is a starting linebacker and the team’s leading rusher with 1,153 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. After making the Finals last fall for the first time, P-W recovered from two late losses to get in position to return. The names to know are different this fall, but they’re equally talented. Junior quarterback Kyle Nurenberg has run for 563 yards and 15 scores and thrown for 762 and 10 TDs, and senior tailback Jered Myszak has rushed for 1,179 yards and nine touchdowns.
Detroit Loyola (12-0) vs. Flint Beecher (8-4) at Fenton
Loyola is back in the Semifinals for the second straight season and follows the lead of one of the top scorers in MHSAA football history. Senior Keymonn’e Gabriel has run for 2,195 yards and 32 touchdowns, and with his 48 two-point conversions has 288 points total – tied for third-most in MHSAA history for a single season. Beecher got into the playoffs as a 5-4 additional qualifier, but limited Hamady and Saginaw Nouvel to a combined 22 points over the last two weeks. The winner will celebrate a historic first. Neither has played in an MHSAA championship game.
St. Ignace (12-0) vs. Beal City (12-0) at Traverse City’s Thirlby Field
The Saints are playing to reach the Finals for the first time since 1985 and got past a major obstacle in formerly undefeated Felch North Dickinson last week. St. Ignace presents opponents a number of weapons to stop – three backs have run for at least 630 yards and 10 touchdowns, and junior quarterback Travis Snyder has thrown for 1,443 yards and 25 scores. Beal City is a two-time MHSAA champion and is scoring 40 points per game while giving up only 11. Senior Sam Schafer plays a large part in both as a starting linebacker and quarterback who has thrown for 1,546 yards and 19 TDs.
Muskegon Catholic Central (9-3) vs. Harbor Beach (11-1) at Alma College
Harbor Beach has beaten two excellent teams the last two weeks in New Lothrop and Waterford Our Lady, and is led by dangerous junior quarterback Eli Kraft (740 yards and 14 TDs rushing, 1,129 yards and 11 TDs passing). But the Pirates will have their toughest challenge yet in MCC, which defeated reigning champion Mendon last week and reigning runner-up Fowler the week before. The Crusaders have run for 3,447 yards, led by junior Alex Lewandoski’s 1,121.
PHOTO: Portland players celebrate their Regional title after beating reigning MHSAA Division 5 champion Flint Powers Catholic on Friday. (Click to see more at HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)