After Lean Years, Ubly Returns to Regional

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

November 9, 2016

Aaron Klama sat in the stands in 2008 watching his brothers play for Ubly in the Division 7 championship game at Ford Field.

Klama was 10, and Ubly was at the peak of the strongest decade in program history. Even though his brothers and their teammates lost against Traverse City St. Francis, Klama remembers wanting to be like them. Wanting to have the same opportunity to play on that field.

There’s plenty of work for Klama and his Ubly teammates left to do, but after some rough years for the program, the Bearcats are 11-0 and two wins from getting back to the pinnacle of high school football in Michigan.

“I feel like it’s amazing just being able to possibly be in the same shoes as my brothers,” Klama, a senior offensive and defensive tackle for Ubly, said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to push my team further than they even went. But everything has just been amazing this year.”

Ubly is in the middle of its best season since 2010. It will play at 1 p.m. Saturday against New Lothrop at Chesaning High School in a Division 7 Regional Final. A win sends the Bearcats to the Semifinals for the first time since 2009 and the fifth time in school history. All four of the previous trips came between 2003 and 2009, during a 12-year playoff streak for Ubly that stretched through 2012.

That streak ended in 2013, when the current seniors were freshmen. Ubly was 3-6 during both the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

“We had a couple years where numbers were really down,” Ubly coach Dave Kaufman, who took over the program in 2011, said. “In (2013 and 2014), we were playing with 14 to 16 kids. We had some small senior classes.

“It was tough. We’re used to being in the 20s, and the first couple years our numbers were pretty good. We had some small senior classes, and the injury bug kicked our butt, too. When you’re down in numbers as it is, that’s when you’re starting to bring up freshmen and sophomores.”

That included running back Derek Brown, who started as a freshman for the Bearcats and has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons. It included Klama, running back and defensive back Nate Keller and several others who were playing at the varsity level as sophomores.

As much as it may have hurt at the time, getting that experience is paying dividends now.

“I think (having players play as underclassmen) helped,” Kaufman said. “I think it also helps that we have a really good senior group. Some of these kids have been playing for three or four years, and that definitely helps.”

In 2015, Ubly was back in the postseason, finishing the year 7-3 and turning the program back in the right direction. What happened between the end of that season and the beginning of this one is what Ubly’s players credit for their current success.

“Everybody was in the weight room all winter, and everybody wants to win on the team,” Keller said. “We didn’t just have two guys in the weight room; it was 15 or 16 guys in there, busting their butts.

“We had guys that would be telling everybody to get into the weight room, because we want to win more than anybody. We had a few leaders that told everybody to get in there.”

After struggling as underclassmen, turning things around in 2015 and setting the tone with a strong offseason prior to this fall, Ubly had high hopes entering its Week 1 game against a tough Unionville-Sebewaing opponent.

Then the Bearcats fumbled on their first offensive play.

“It was kind of like, ‘We can only go up from here, I guess,’” Keller said. “I think that just fueled the fire. We were ready to play from there.”

Ubly responded, and won 28-18, showing its coach something in the process.

“That could have went the wrong way there,” Kaufman said. “That told me a lot about my team right there.”

His team showed him more in a 21-16 win against Cass City, a game in which the Bearcats trailed during the second half. A 54-34 win against Vassar had Ubly sitting at 3-0 after a stretch Kaufman said he would have been happy to finish 2-1.

Ubly rolled through the Greater Thumb Conference East, outscoring opponents by an average of 37.4 points per game. It has picked up playoff wins against Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port and Unionville-Sebewaing, setting itself up for the matchup with a tough New Lothrop team.

Ubly is back where it expects to be, and it has done it the same way it did during the 2000s, by wearing on its opponents with a strong run game out of the T-formation and a strong defense.

Ubly has rushed for 3,500 yards and 51 touchdowns this season, taking advantage of an offensive line (including tight ends) that features five seniors. Brown has led the way with 1,188 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, while senior Jonathon Brandel has 861 yards and 14 touchdowns -- adding four receiving scores plus two interception returns and one punt return for touchdowns. Keller and junior quarterback Matt Maikzrek have combined for nearly 1,000 yards and 14 more rushing touchdowns.

“We have no problem chugging away, eating up clock,” Kaufman said. “When teams haven’t faced (the T-formation) in a little bit, they struggle a little bit with the keys. We try to hide the football as well as we can, and we’re happy getting three, four or five yards a crack. There’s not a better defense than an offense that stays on the field.”

Ubly’s offense is a lot like its attitude through the rough times – just keep moving forward.

“As we walk through the locker room every day, we have a little billboard that says, ‘Those who stay will become champions,’” Klama said. “We slap it on the way out. The coaches even told us that if we stay and work hard, we weren’t going to regret it. They always taught us about loyalty and determination.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ubly's Casey Sweeney breaks through a pack against Unionville-Sebewaing this season. (Middle) Jonathan Brandel carries the ball for the Bearcats. (Photos courtesy of the Ubly yearbook staff.)

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)