All Eyes on Ithaca's Winning Streak

November 1, 2012

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Terry Hessbrook has sensed this level of buzz around Ithaca's football program once before.

He was a senior running back during the 1984 "dream season" when the team finished the regular season 9-0 and made the playoffs for the first time. The Yellowjackets' postseason run lasted only a week – Ithaca fell to Grand Rapids South Christian 20-0 in the first round, which in those days of shorter playoffs was the Regional Final – but the excitement was reminiscent of the attention his program is getting heading into Friday's Division 6 District Final against Hemlock. 

Except this hype extends far outside the city limits of his 2,900-resident hometown. Ithaca has won 38 straight games, the fifth-longest streak in MHSAA football history, and is only three more wins from a third straight trip to the Finals at Ford Field.

“It’s been really neat to have people take a look at what we’re doing in Ithaca,” Hessbrook said. “We’re not doing anything different. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re not a bunch of geniuses or anything like that. We just have a coaching staff that works really hard and supports each other, and we don’t care who gets the credit. And the players don’t care who gets the credit.” 

How much the ninth-year coach is beaming comes through the phone as he talks of his players' handling of the growing expectations or how fortunate he is to be surrounded by assistants he's been close with, in at least a few cases, for decades.

And winning makes everything more fun. The Yellowjackets get a Second Half High 5 this week as they work toward becoming just the fifth school to win three straight MHSAA titles since the first playoffs were held in 1975. The winning streak is the third-longest among those that included at least one season since the postseason was added.

Ahead of Ithaca on that consecutive wins list are Hudson (72), Morenci (44), Cheboygan (43) and New Lothrop (39). But only Cheboygan accomplished its streak completely within the playoff era, with Hudson’s coming to an end in the first MHSAA Class C Final.  

Making this run more special is that half the team has been together for nearly all of it.

Hessbrook brought his players into a huddle at the start of practice this August, and as he started looking at their faces, a thought crossed his mind.

“Wow, you guys have been around for a long time,” he told them.

Ithaca’s football players haven’t been around any longer than those on any other team in Michigan. But it sure feels that way. The Yellowjackets have played in 12 playoff games over the last three years, and five seniors who moved to varsity at the start of 2010 – receiver Markes Gadlen, linebackers Tyler Gibson and Jacob Barnes and linemen Bradley Martyn and Josh Capen – have played in 38 varsity games. That’s the equivalent of more than four regular seasons. And the team's other 12 seniors all came up for the playoffs in 2010, giving them more postseason experience than perhaps any group currently playing in this state. 

During that 2010 run, they felt like they were along for the ride. Last season’s championship was about seniors like Garrett Miniard and David Brown showing they could win one too after following all-state quarterback Alex Niznak’s lead the year before. Now, these seniors similarly want to be the leaders of another title run.

But Hessbrook is sure to credit one more group – the 2009 team that played in the team's first MHSAA Semifinal.

“In 2009, that group of players raised the bar, and they made it possible, although they didn’t win,” Hessbrook said. “They didn’t get to the big game. But in 2009, for one quarter (in the Semifinal), we played with Montague (which went on to finish 14-0).

“The bar has been raised. I don’t know that the goal now is to (just) get into the playoffs. I think the kids are hungry enough that they don’t want to just get in. They want to get in and make noise.”  

The name statewide observers are coming to know is that of junior quarterback Travis Smith. He took over in the 2011 opener and quarterbacked the team through the 42-14 championship game win over Constantine, throwing for 299 yards – fifth-best all-time for an MHSAA championship game.

His numbers this fall say plenty – 107 completions in 175 attempts for 1,696 yards and 30 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. Smith also leads the team with 610 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. He’s 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds and already getting the college looks that came to Niznak during his senior season after he’d already committed to Central Michigan.

Total, the team is outscoring opponents on average 53-6. The defense is a little smaller but faster this fall, and is averaging exactly three turnovers per game.  

Another stat helps it all make more sense. Teams submit the grade-point average for their top 11 players for academic all-state – and Ithaca’s group comes in at 3.85.

And visitors to Ithaca don’t get the feel they’re in a small town once they enter the stadium. Recent renovations included the addition of viewing platforms 15 feet above the track that put fans closer to the field than the first row of bleachers. There are new bathrooms and a larger concessions area, but the biggest blast comes from the 13 by 24-foot Jumbotron scoreboard that’s made the stadium feel more like the home of a Division II college team.

Hessbrook estimates at least 2,000 fans are showing up for home games, and similarly large crowds have followed his team on the road.

To Ithaca’s credit, the team is taking all of this in stride. It’s not that the streak isn’t a big deal – “It is what it is,” Hessbrook said – but the players just don’t talk about it too much.

“They’re really a mature group of seniors, really grounded, from great families with great parents who are very supportive of what we’re doing and just keep their kids grounded. The coaching staff does a good job keeping the kids grounded," Hessbrook said. "You’re only as good as your last game. Nobody’s going to care what you did last week or last month. And I think the players believe that.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca's Caden Kipp and Zach Allen (12) celebrate after a touchdown during last week's win over Grandville Calvin Christian. (Middle) Quarterback Travis Smith already is in the MHSAA record book for his performance during last season's Division 6 Final. (Click to see more from

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.)