Regardless of how one looks at it, Justin Newcomb is the right person for the right job at the right time.
Newcomb, 33, is one of the youngest head football coaches in the Detroit area, and he’s causing a stir. He’s in his second season at Sterling Heights Stevenson and the person most responsible for the Titans playing in an MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal on Saturday for the first time in a decade.
Stevenson (8-4), as an additional playoff qualifier, has played the underdog role to a T throughout the playoffs. There’s an advantage to that role, and Stevenson will take it up again when it takes on Davison (10-2) at Troy Athens at 1 p.m.
Once a football power, Stevenson fell back to the middle of the pack in the highly competitive Macomb Area Conference Red from 2010-18. Four times previously the program had reached an MHSAA Final, the last in 2009 when the Titans lost to Detroit Catholic Central, 31-21, in the Division 1 title game.
That was Hall of Fame coach Rick Bye’s 35th and final season at Stevenson. Since then, the Titans qualified for the playoffs three times and didn’t win a playoff game. That is, until this season.
“You’ve got goals,” Newcomb said. “You set goals at the start (of the season), and you just want to get the most out of (your) team.”
When Newcomb took over, the program had won just three games over the previous two seasons. The Titans were 4-5 overall in 2018, and just 1-4 in the MAC Red, which was won by eventual Division 1 champion Clinton Township Chippewa Valley. The average margin of defeat in those four league losses was 25.5 points.
“We took our lumps (in the MAC Red),” Newcomb said. “The challenge was getting kids to come out. When we first came in there was some interest lost. We had to beg some to come out. Now that we’re winning, kids are saying they want to come out.”
Despite his young age, Newcomb has coached high school football for 14 seasons. He started as an assistant under Mike Powell at Warren Cousino in 2006 when Newcomb was a student at Wayne State University. For 10 seasons he was the head varsity baseball coach at Cousino, but he gave that up when he took over for Powell as Cousino’s head football coach in 2017.
Though Newcomb finds himself in the right position at Stevenson, don’t view Stevenson’s sudden success as luck. Newcomb possesses an insatiable appetite for knowledge. If there’s a clinic to attend, you’ll likely find Newcomb there. And his ego doesn’t prevent him from talking to more experienced coaches to pry loose valuable information. Most often you’ll find Bye on the Stevenson sideline, not as an assistant but someone there whom Newcomb can confide in.
“Justin is positive and energetic,” Bye said. “He’s definitely not a guy who thinks he knows it all. He’s bought into everything, the Stevenson history, everything. He’s up on technology, much more so than I ever was. And he doesn’t let little things bother him. His practices have a tempo, and there’s little time wasted.”
Not lost in Newcomb’s system is his military background. After graduating from Wayne State with a teaching degree, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 2011. He continues to serve today in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).
“It has a lot to do with the way we coach,” Newcomb said of his military experience. “(Coaching) is a lot more than just what goes on on the field. There’s (teaching) leadership roles and being responsible. In our culture, it’s all about winning. It’s all about playing time. The kids get caught up in that.
“Their attitudes have changed. We had to address the group as a whole. We had guys that first year that said that they play linebacker, and that’s it. Others came in saying they just play one way. That’s not how we do it. You’re here to help the team. Now the kids are doing whatever we need them to.”
A prime example is junior Giovanni El-Hadi. A college prospect (committed to University of Michigan), El-Hadi had been told, by some outside of the program, that he was an offensive lineman and wouldn’t play defense. This season El-Hadi is starting on defense for the first time and said earlier this fall that his time spent on the defensive side has helped improve his speed.
Another two-way starter on the line is senior Sal Madonna. Madonna is a two-year starter, and he and his brother, sophomore Biagio Madonna, are the sons of assistant coach Carmine Madonna – who played for Bye during the late 1990s.
“For me, I’ve been a part of Stevenson football for a long time,” Sal Madonna said. “Last year’s team wasn’t as connected as much. This year we bonded together. We trusted Coach Newcomb’s style. Even last year as juniors (we knew) to be successful, we had to buy in. We didn’t have the same mindset last year. We’re playing with a lot more confidence now.
“This means a lot to me. I remember being in the stands (at Troy Athens) when Jason Fracassa threw a touchdown pass in the (2009) Semifinals. Just like this team, that team never gave up.”
This team rebounded from a 2-3 start with a 13-7 comeback victory over Utica in Week 6. That game, more than others, was the turning point of the Titans’ season. Newcomb made a switch at quarterback, moving Biagio Madonna from linebacker and switching fellow sophomore Jordan Ramsey from quarterback to slot receiver and running back. With Ramsey, Newcomb was running a zone read offense. With Madonna, Stevenson is running an option attack.
In the victory over Utica, Stevenson used a trick play to score the winning touchdown. Last week in the 9-7 Regional Final victory over Detroit Cass Tech, the Titans had a goal-line stand in the first half and scored the winning touchdown on a double pass. Madonna threw to Dylan Kleinedler, who threw to Ramsey for a touchdown early in the second half. A Ramsey interception ended the game with 14 seconds left.
The previous week against Macomb Dakota, Newcomb decided not to go for the tying field goal from 40 yards out, and instead called on Madonna to throw the winning touchdown pass to Ramsey with a minute to play. Stevenson won 38-35 against a team it had lost to, 40-14, during the regular season and before Newcomb had made the quarterback switch.
“We’ve been fortunate the last few weeks with trick plays,” Newcomb said. “(But) getting here is a testament on just how hard these kids have worked.”
Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Sterling Heights Stevenson players hoist their Division 1 Regional championship trophy after defeating Detroit Cass Tech last week. (Middle) Jordan Ramsey (5) breaks into the open against the Technicians. (Photos courtesy of the Stevenson football program.)