Welcome to what might be the most anticipated opening weekend in Michigan high school football history.
No one is saying life is back to pre-pandemic normal, of course. But after last football season saw multiple delays, an abbreviated regular season and altered playoff format, it’s hard not to be excited about most things beginning “as they always have” this weekend across our state.
And there are plenty of opportunities to dig in and enjoy.
Check out your local game, or one of those highlighted below – including a number of games from three showcase events, the Battle at the Big House at University of Michigan, the Xenith Prep Kick Off Classic at Wayne State and the Vehicle City Gridiron Classic at Kettering’s Atwood Stadium. There are also plenty of opportunities to tune in from home – more than 150 games will be streamed live on the NFHS Network or by partner Bally Sports Detroit, including two televised live on BSD’s primary cable channel. (Click for details.)
As in seasons past, our weekly football previews will point out intriguing games from every region of the state – opportunities to see a great story unfold no matter where fans live or are visiting that weekend. Records below are from the 2020 season. (Games from the aforementioned showcases are listed in the region of one of the competitors.)
Bay & Thumb
Davison (10-1) vs. Clarkston (7-1), Friday at U-M
A number of teams from the I-75 corridor and particularly the Flint suburbs will be playing showcase games this weekend, and this might be the biggest as well as a preview of a more significant rematch to come. Clarkston’s lone loss last season came by seven to Grand Blanc in a District Semifinal – a week before the Wolves would have faced Davison, which suffered its only defeat at Ford Field against West Bloomfield in the Division 1 championship game. The Cardinals also were Division 1 champs in 2019, with Clarkston most recently making the Finals as Division 1 runner-up in 2018.
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Lapeer (3-4) vs. Grand Rapids Catholic Central (10-0) at U-M, Frankenmuth (11-1) vs. Goodrich (6-2) at Atwood Stadium. FRIDAY East Lansing (8-1) vs. Grand Blanc (7-2) at Atwood Stadium, Midland Dow (5-3) vs. Fenton (7-1) at U-M.
Detroit Catholic Central (9-1) vs. Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (3-4), Thursday at WSU
This might be the premier matchup of the Wayne State games, and also one where a 2020 record should be ignored when making that argument. Chippewa Valley may have lost four games last season, but those defeats came by a combined 21 points and none by more than nine. DCC, meanwhile, suffered its only loss to Davison, in a Division 1 Regional Final. The Shamrocks were especially tough defensively last fall, giving up 10 points per game, while winning a Detroit Catholic League Central that sent Warren De La Salle Collegiate to the Division 2 championship game.
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Canton (8-1) vs. Dearborn Fordson (5-3) at Wayne State, Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice (7-2) at Macomb Dakota (6-2). FRIDAY Oak Park (5-6) at Orchard Lake St. Mary's (2-4). SATURDAY Southfield Arts & Technology (3-4) vs. Detroit Cass Tech (8-1) at Wayne State.
DeWitt (12-0) vs. Traverse City Central (9-2), Thursday at U-M
The Panthers are coming off their first Finals championship, claiming the Division 3 title last season, and might be even better on offense this fall with multiple playmakers returning after the team scored at least 37 points in all but one game. Central missed making Ford Field by one win, falling to eventual champion Muskegon Mona Shores in a Division 2 Semifinal. The Trojans scored at least 30 points in all but one game last season and should be a handful in an intriguing Michigan Stadium clash.
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Olivet (7-2) at Charlotte (2-5). FRIDAY Freeland (8-2) at Clare (7-1), Fowler (6-3) at Carson City-Crystal (6-2), Lansing Everett (did not play) at Lansing Sexton (did not play).
Northern Lower Peninsula
Reed City (8-0) at Cadillac (7-3), Thursday
Rewind again to when the MHSAA football season concluded at Ford Field, and Cadillac was one of the surprises of championship weekend. The Vikings reached the Finals for the first time, and while being held scoreless by Detroit Country Day in the Division 4 championship game they also put up one of their most impressive defensive performances holding the Yellowjackets to 13 points. Reed City’s story, though, had to feel a little unfinished – after starting out with eight straight wins, the Coyotes’ last playoff game before the COVID-related break in November was canceled, as was their Regional Final when play resumed in January.
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Traverse City West (6-2) vs. Midland (8-1) at U-M, Beaverton (6-2) at Lake City (2-4), Houghton Lake (4-3) at Maple City Glen Lake (5-3), Kingsley (8-0) at McBain (6-1).
Southeast & Border
New Lothrop (11-0) at Jackson Lumen Christi (5-5), Thursday
These two have made a combined six trips to Ford Field with five championships over the last five seasons. New Lothrop is coming off its second Division 7 title in three seasons in January, while Lumen Christi was stopped short in the Regional Finals – a week before it would have met New Lothrop with a Finals bid on the line. This is also an intriguing matchup between the state’s longest-serving and third-winningest football coach, Lumen’s Herb Brogan (373-89 over 42 seasons), against a younger leader on the path to join the all-time greats in Clint Galvas (129-15 over 13).
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Ithaca (8-1) at Hudson (4-4). FRIDAY Ottawa Lake Whiteford (6-3) at Blissfield (8-1), Michigan Center (6-2) at Homer (5-3), Saline (8-2) vs. Hudsonville (5-3) at U-M.
Portage Central (3-5) at Stevensville Lakeshore (6-3) , Thursday
After not awarding a league champion last season because of the abbreviated regular-season schedule, the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference gets rolling immediately with two frequent contenders facing off. Central and Lakeshore didn’t play last season, but Central has won two straight in the otherwise-annual series.
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Lake Odessa Lakewood (3-4) at Battle Creek Pennfield (5-4), Grand Ledge (5-3) at Coldwater (5-2), Cassopolis (2-5) at Schoolcraft (9-2). FRIDAY Battle Creek Lakeview (5-3) vs. Battle Creek Harper Creek (5-3).
Negaunee (6-4) at Iron Mountain (7-2), Thursday
Once the regular season finally got started last fall, the Upper Peninsula proved quickly captivating as the status of best team north of Mackinac Bridge seemed to change hands weekly. Iron Mountain was the last remaining in the playoffs, reaching the Division 8 Regional Finals and missing the Semifinals with a one-point defeat. Both of these teams stand to be in the conversation again not only across the peninsula and statewide but more locally as the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper (and Silver) reinstates league play after also not awarding a 2020 champ.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Gladstone (2-4) at Calumet (4-4), Bark River-Harris (5-3) at Gwinn (4-4), Houghton (2-3) at Ishpeming Westwood (5-2), Sault Ste. Marie (6-3) at St. Ignace (1-6).
Edwardsburg (9-1) at Montague (12-0), Thursday
The anticipation for this matchup should rival any this weekend including for the games being played at the three opening showcases. Montague put together one of the most impressive 2020 runs in any division on the way to claiming the Division 6 title but enters this fall with a new coach and quarterback. Edwardsburg missed returning to Ford Field with a two-point loss to Cadillac in a Division 4 Semifinal and likely would have reached double-digit wins for a sixth-straight season if not for the abbreviated schedule.
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Zeeland West (5-1) at East Grand Rapids (6-4), Muskegon Mona Shores (12-0) at Lowell (4-4). FRIDAY Grand Rapids South Christian (8-2) at Grand Rapids Christian (4-4), Hudsonville Unity Christian (7-0) at Hopkins (5-2).
Gaylord St. Mary (7-2) at Pickford (7-2), Friday
These two won’t see each other again when the playoffs roll around – Pickford is in Division 1 this season and St. Mary in Division 2. But if recent history serves, this opener could be a primer for the kind of matchup both could earn a few months from now. Pickford made the Regional Finals last season and has pushed at least that far into the playoffs the last five seasons. Gaylord St. Mary is coming off two straight Regional Finals trips, both in Division 1 as well before moving into Division 2 for this fall.
Keep an eye on these THURSDAY Mendon (6-2 in 11-player) at Vandercook Lake (4-2). FRIDAY Merrill (6-2) at Marion (8-2), Wyoming Tri-unity Christian (3-5) at Martin (8-2), Onaway (6-1) at Indian River Inland Lakes (8-2).
PHOTO: Football stadium lights, like these last season at Muskegon High School, will brighten the sky again for the 2021 season beginning this weekend. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)
Separated by 527 travel miles – whether over Mackinac Bridge or around Lake Michigan, the Novara family celebrated nearly parallel football successes this fall.
At Portland, John Novara completed his 25th season as head coach leading the Raiders to a 12-1 record – their best since finishing Division 5 runner-up in 2018, and a second-straight Capital Area Activities Conference White championship on the way to reaching the Division 4 Semifinals.
At Kingsford, fifth-year coach Mark Novara led the Flivvers to a 10-2 record – their best since posting the same in 2004. Kingsford shared the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title and won a Division 5 District title, its first District championship since 2009.
John Novara graduated from Iron Mountain in 1989, and younger brother Mark graduated from Kingsford in 1993.
Similarly parallel, both teams were quarterbacked by Novaras. Dominic Novara directed the Raiders’ attack, and cousin Nic Novara led the Flivvers. Both are juniors. (Mark Novara was a Division III All-American at quarterback at Lakeland College in Wisconsin.)
One more connection: Portland athletic director Kevin Veale quarterbacked the Iron Mountain teams with John Novara as tight end long before they worked together downstate. Veale’s nephew Garrett Veale was a standout two-way lineman for Mark Novara and Kingsford this fall.
Small gesture, memorable connection
Dante DeGrazia’s senior season was sadly short-lived this fall, as he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of South Lyon East’s opening game against White Lake Lakeland at Michigan Stadium.
But an official provided a memory the DeGrazias will not forget.
Chris Curtis had begun his 16th season as an official earlier that day at U-M, and stuck around to watch the Lakes Valley Conference matchup. A month later, he was officiating the East/Warren Mott game, and made sure to check in with DeGrazia – a small gesture, but a meaningful one as well and another reminder of the interconnectedness of communities within educational athletics.
“When he heard my son wasn't able to play anymore, needed surgery and that he was a senior, he offered him kindness and a hug on the field,” Dante’s mother Dana DeGrazia wrote to East athletic director Greg Michaels. “As a parent whose son is going through a rough time dealing with losing his senior season, hearing this story from Dante means a lot to me and the support that was given to him and I wanted to reach out and tell him thank you.”
PHOTOS (Top) Kingsford football coach Mark Novara, far left, quarterback Nic Novara and Portland coach (and uncle) John Novara celebrate the Flivvers' District title. (Middle) South Lyon East's Dante DeGrazia (33) and official Chris Curtis meet for a quick hug during East's Week 5 game. (Photos courtesy of the Portland football program and DeGrazia family, respectively.)