By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half
DETROIT – Ironically, it was Clinton Township Chippewa Valley’s defense which stole the show Saturday at Ford Field.
With just 23 seconds to play in the Division 1 Final, Clarkston scored to pull within one point of the Big Reds. Wolves coach Kurt Richardson, himself known statewide for defensive genius over 32 seasons leading the program, rolled the dice and went for a go-ahead 2-point conversion.
After a timeout, fullback Jake Billette took a direct snap and went left, then handed off to receiver Josh Luther running right, who was looking to either run or pass for the conversion.
But Chippewa Valley senior defensive lineman Michael Garwood read the play perfectly, stayed home on the reverse and then bull-rushed Luther for a four-yard loss, preserving the Big Reds’ 31-30 victory and first MHSAA football championship since winning Division 2 in 2001.
“A lot of people talk about our offense, but that was a huge defensive play right there, obviously,” said 10th-year Chippewa Valley coach Scott Merchant, whose team finished 14-0 and was known for its offense. “Michael Garwood, our defensive end, stayed home on the backside and really blew up that play.”
Garwood’s tackle for loss ended a valiant comeback for Clarkston, which was looking for its second consecutive Division 1 title and fourth in six years.
The Big Reds stunned the Wolves with two TDs in the first 6 minutes to take a quick 14-0 lead, and still led by that same margin, 24-10, at halftime.
The second half was a different story as Clarkston scored three touchdowns to just one for Chippewa Valley, but the failed two-point conversion attempt proved to be the difference.
“We’ve been aggressive forever here, and that’s the way we play football,” said Richardson, a 1971 Clarkston graduate who has turned his alma mater into a state powerhouse, explaining his end-of-game gamble. “We called a timeout, and we were all in on it. They defended it well, so what can I say? It was just a great high school football game.”
The Big Reds, champions of the Macomb Area Conference Red, were able to move the ball consistently against the vaunted Clarkston defense because of crafty senior quarterback Tommy Schuster and a bevy of dangerous weapons including Martice Bunting, Andrew Chenault and David Ellis.
Schuster, a 6-0, 195-pound senior, was a perfect 13-for-13 through the air for 205 yards and two touchdowns. He set the MHSAA Finals record for passing accuracy for players who have attempted at least 12 passes in one championship game, breaking the record of .846 set in 2011.
Schuster, who had a 36-yard scoring strike to senior Bunting in the first quarter and then a 25-yard scoring pass to Bunting late in the third which proved to be the game-winner, said all of the pregame talk about Clarkston’s defense motivated him and his offensive teammates.
“We definitely took it as a challenge,” said Schuster, a three-year starter who threw for 1,858 yards with 26 touchdown passes and only one interception this season. “Our gameplan was to come out strong and punch them in the mouth, get their attention, and then keep it up.”
Clarkston’s final drive began at its own 22-yard line with 2:28 remaining and the Wolves trailing, 31-24.
Senior quarterback Jake Jensen, outstanding himself with a game-high 121 rushing yards and 10-of-15 passing for 110 yards through the air, engineered a 10-play, 78-yard drive which culminated with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Matt Miller with 23 seconds left on the clock.
That set the stage for Richardson’s gamble on the conversion and the title-saving tackle by Garwood.
Clarkston actually finished with the edge in total yards, 347-320, including a 213-115 edge on the ground. The difference turned out to be Schuster’s perfect day through the air, as he averaged 16 yards per pass, and also one big special teams play.
After the Wolves closed to within 17-10 on a three-yard scoring run from senior Jacob Honstetter just 41 seconds before halftime, Chippewa Valley speedster David Ellis answered right back.
Ellis, who has committed to Indiana University, took the ensuing kickoff at his own 6-yard line and turned on the jets, sprinting 94 yards along the Clarkston sideline to up the lead to 24-10 at the break.
“I just wanted to make something happen,” explained Ellis, who has 4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash. “I saw a hole to the left and just ran as fast as I could.
“Clarkston was one of the best defenses that we faced, but we just have too many players. You can stop one, but then there’s five or six others to worry about.”
Ellis added three receptions for 58 yards, and Bunting had three catches for 66 yards. Chenault was the leading rusher with 12 carries for 67 yards. Chippewa Valley’s defense was led by Ja’Von Kimpson with an interception, Myles Harris with eight tackles, Jonathan Zak with six and Garwood with five.
Billette had 11 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown for Clarkston. Luther had four receptions and Conor Donahue and Miller had three catches apiece. Max Nicklin, Aaron Berti, Brendan Barker, Zach Reid and Luther all made six tackles.
The game was the polar opposite of last year’s Division 1 Final, where Clarkston beat West Bloomfield by the baseball-like score of 3-2. That five-point affair was the second-lowest scoring game in Finals history, and Clarkston tied the record for most punts in the Finals with eight.
Just 2:26 into Saturday’s game, the Big Reds eclipsed last year’s total points on a three-yard run by Chenault, capping a six-play, 76-yard drive.
Saturday also was vastly different from Clarkston’s previous four playoff games, where the Wolves allowed a total of 16 points.
Chippewa Valley scored its 17th point early in the second quarter on a 36-yard field goal by Niko Kepi.
By then, both coaches knew it was going to be a whole different type of ballgame.
“This is a huge day for all of us, our football program and our community,” said Merchant. “I am thankful to all of these players for taking me on this ride. This is a special, very humble group of kids that always give credit to other people.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Chippewa Valley’s Andre Chenault (5) takes down Clarkston’s Jake Honstetter during Saturday’s Division 1 Final at Ford Field. (Middle) The Big Reds deny the Wolves’ 2-point conversion attempt to secure a 31-30 victory.
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.)