Carsonville-Port Sanilac has been all in since the beginning of 8-player football as an MHSAA sport three seasons ago.
Rapid River made the switch just this season.
But heading into tonight's first-ever MHSAA Final for the sport, both programs can claim similar rewards from embracing this adjusted version of the state's most popular high school sport.
Despite small enrollments, they can still play the game. And although they've struggled at times in recent years, both teams are winning -- and reaping all of the community support and good vibes that come with success.
Both 11-1, Carsonville-Port Sanilac and Rapid River kick off for the championship at 7 p.m. at Northern Michigan's Superior Dome.
"We can't be happier to have the opportunity to play (8-player) this year. The added success has really brought our team together, and I hope it ends on a good note," Rapid River coach Steve Ostrenga said. "It's great for the kids and great for the community. You always talk about hard work. But when we were 1-8 ... the kids who have been through those tough times, I think they appreciate it more."
Both teams can value that statement.
Rapid River won one game each of the last two seasons and hadn't reached the playoffs since 2002. The school has roughly 120 students now -- 40-50 fewer than when it was having its last run of success near the end of the 1990s.
Carsonville-Port Sanilac went 0-9 before leading the charge into 8-player football in 2009. Although the Tigers had made the playoffs as recently as 2005, winning seasons for the team had been few and far between. But Carsonville-Port Sanilac went undefeated a year ago and beat Bellaire in an unofficial state "championship" game that matched the Tigers -- winners of the Mid-Michigan 8-man Football League -- against the winners of the Bridge-Alliance 8-man Conference.
"It's changed the whole culture of the school," said C-PS coach Tim Brabant, who is in his second season running the program and graduated from the school in 2006. "At first, a lot of people didn't buy into it. But as we went undefeated last year, and with what we've done this year, we've gotten complete community support and a buy-in across the board."
Recently, that's included 240 people showing up at last week's pancake breakfast to raise money for this weekend's trip to Marquette. Tigers supports also filled two fan buses headed to NMU.
Both coaches also listed a similar adjustment teams that play 8-player football must make: Strong open-field tackling is a must.
Although the field is only 40 yards wide -- instead of the usual 53 -- having six fewer players on the field opens up the offense significantly. Rapid River has scored more than 60 points four times and Carsonville-Port Sanilac put up 70 and 91 in games this fall. Both average 51 points per contest. Ostrenga grew up in Menominee -- known for its single wing offense that doesn't use a quarterback -- but has embraced a spread passing attack that allows for opportunities all over the field.
Both teams suffered their only losses when their quarterbacks were injured briefly in September. Depth always is an issue when numbers are low.
That said, success in this version of the game has planted some roots for the future. C-PS had 50 players out for elementary teams this fall and hopes to have enough down the road for a full junior varsity. Rapid River thinks the move to 8-player will help it sustain the program despite enrollment losses of the last few years.
And the historical context of tonight's game is not lost on either team.
"They understand that. We were the first team in the state of Michigan to have a full 8-man roster," Brabant said. "A lot of people thought we were crazy. These kids understand what's at stake."
(Photo courtesy of Carsonville-Port Sanilac football program)
SOUTHFIELD — Normally, having students come up and say they won’t be in school the next day might have a school administrator seething and ready to reserve seats in the detention room.
But if there ever was a time to allow it, this was the moment.
Following a 36-32 upset of Belleville that stunned many around the state in the MHSAA Division 1 Football Final on Nov. 26, Southfield Arts & Technology senior quarterback Isaiah Marshall said he and other players made it known, “Don’t expect us in school on Monday.”
After all, the game was played and ended late on a Sunday night, the team achieved something nobody else in the community had done, and there were celebrations that needed to begin.
And for the record, the players were back in school Tuesday.
Whether it’s been in school or outside the halls of Southfield A&T, it’s been a week of historic celebrations and congratulations after the Warriors captured the first MHSAA Finals championship in school history.
Marshall said that remained the case when he attended the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis on Saturday.
“Everywhere I go, there is someone congratulating me,” he said.
Over their final decades before the schools merged in 2016, Southfield High School and Southfield-Lathrup High School had plenty of talented teams with numerous players who went on to play big-time college football and even in the NFL.
But none of those good teams was able to advance to a state championship game, let alone win it all.
“There was a lot of people that texted me and talked to me and said they graduated from the 1980s,” said Marshall, pointing out that one former player who reached out was Nic Jones, currently a member of the Kansas City Chiefs who graduated from Southfield High. “There were a lot of older people that used to go to Southfield that told me that they couldn’t do the job. They were proud of us that we could do it for them.”
Marshall said that after the game was over Sunday, he and other teammates congregated at his house at 3 a.m. to watch a replay of the game.
It was only the first time this week the replay was watched.
“We watched it that day and the day after,” Marshall said. “I think we’ve been watching it the whole week.”
A parade Saturday will start at noon at the building that housed the old Southfield-Lathrup and finish at the current school, which was the home of Southfield High before the merger. A&T then will host a celebration in the school gymnasium from 1:15-2:30 p.m.
Players will certainly soak it all in while they can, because it won’t be long before they split up.
Marshall will soon sign to play in college for Kansas and will be enrolling early there. He plans to take his last final exams at Southfield A&T next week and head to Lawrence the first week of January.
Teammate Jalen Todd will do the same as he is also committed to Kansas, while Tashi Braceful will enroll early at Toledo.
But long after this year, it’s a group that won’t be forgotten in the community, or the state after it pulled off the upset of a Belleville team that was riding a 38-game winning streak and was two-time reigning Division 1 champion.
No doubt, future reunions should be memorable and festive.
Even Marshall admitted his still rubs his eyes in amazement over what his team did.
“Yes, I still do,” he said.
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T players enjoy the first moments after their Division 1 championship win at Ford Field. (Middle) The A&T band plays during a break in the action. (Below) Fans celebrate in the stands during the victory over Belleville. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)