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

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)