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.
DETROIT – Isaiah Marshall took a second Sunday night to think about the interception he’d just thrown that led to Belleville taking a late lead in the Division 1 Football Final.
But just a second.
When Marshall and his Southfield Arts & Technology teammates took the field down four points with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining at Ford Field, the interception wasn’t on his mind. Neither was the raucous Belleville crowd that had awoken on the home side of the stadium.
He wasn’t thinking about stopping a three-peat or snapping a 38-game Belleville win streak. He wasn’t thinking about the talk he’d heard during the week leading up to the game, that his team was on its way to getting blown out like so many of those previous 38 opponents.
All Marshall was focused on was doing his job.
“As soon as I threw the pick, I knew what I had to do differently,” Marshall said. “I just wasn’t thinking about that last play. As soon as I threw the pick, I just thought about it on the bench, then as soon as I came out, it wasn’t on my mind at all. I just knew I had to go down the field and score.”
Like he had all night, Marshall came through when the Warriors needed him most, leading his team on a 69-yard scoring drive, finishing the final 11 with his legs for the go-ahead score in Southfield A&T’s 36-32 victory against Belleville.
His defense finished the rest, as Dorian Freeman intercepted a pass during the final seconds, sealing the first Finals title for Southfield.
“It’s special,” A&T coach Aaron Marshall said. “It’s special for the community. It’s a long time coming. All week I’ve been getting calls from guys I’ve never met just congratulating the boys on making it. We had never even made it to the championship game, let alone won one. It’s real big for the community. I’m really proud.”
To do it, the Warriors needed to overcome the team that has dominated Division 1 for the past three seasons in Belleville (13-1). The Tigers had won the past two Division 1 Finals, and hadn’t dropped a game since Sept. 10, 2021.
They entered Sunday having outscored opponents this fall by an average of 49-7. They also featured the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2025 in quarterback Bryce Underwood.
But Sunday, none of that mattered to Marshall and the Warriors (13-1). Well, except maybe the last part.
“Just a little bit,” Marshall said when asked if he was out to prove he was the state’s top quarterback. “I do think I’m the best player in the state. Me proving that tonight, and showing what I can do on the big stage shows that, I think.”
He finished the night completing 20 of 31 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns, as well as two interceptions. He also rushed for 134 yards and the go-ahead score, as well as the two-point conversion that put his team up four.
“He came out there and played like I thought he was going to play,” said Belleville star linebacker and running back Jeremiah Beasley, who has committed to Michigan. “He’s a real tough player. Since we were little, he’s always been tough. He came out there and played with all his heart, and they came out on top.”
Underwood certainly had his moments, finishing 11 for 24 for 164 yards and a touchdown to go along with one interception. He also had five rushes for 39 yards.
And A&T was certainly cognizant of what Underwood could do, especially when he got the ball back with 47 seconds to play and a chance to take the lead. But by playing coverage, they didn’t allow the Tigers to push the ball down the field, and eventually pressure from senior defensive tackle Reggie Gardner forced the throw that Freeman intercepted to clinch the game.
“My coaches just told me to spy the quarterback, and whatever he did, I would go,” Freeman said. “Then it was just right in my zone.”
A&T led for most of the game, getting a pair of rushing touchdowns from Mathias Davis during the first half, the second score giving them a 12-7 lead.
After a 31-yard field goal from Belleville’s Brayden Lane made the score 12-10, Marshall engineered an 80-yard drive over the final three minutes of the second quarter to give his team a 10-point lead at the half. He accounted for 79 of the 80 yards with either his legs or his arm, finishing it off with a 13-yard TD pass to Tashi Braceful with 13 seconds remaining in the half. Braceful finished the night with 10 catches for 152 yards.
The Warriors nearly added to that halftime lead, as well, recovering a squib kick at the Belleville 43. Marshall hit Tyjuan Esper for a 38-yard gain on the next play, but he was tackled as the first-half clock expired.
Early in the third quarter, Marshall and the Warriors did stretch their lead when he threw a 19-yard TD pass to Xavi Bowman on a 4th-and-14. DaMario Quarles’ conversion run put them up 28-10 with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.
Of course, Belleville didn’t go away.
The Tigers responded immediately with a 45-yard TD pass from Underwood to Jalen Johnson. And after stopping Marshall on a 4th-and-2 run near midfield, they needed just three plays and 30 seconds to pull within three points of the lead as Beasley scored on a 15-yard run.
On the next A&T possession, Marquis Peoples put Belleville right back in business with an interception that he returned to the 35-yard line. Beasley again cashed in three plays later, with a 22-yard TD run that gave Belleville a 33-27 lead with 4:47 remaining.
Beasley finished the night with 106 yards and the two touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s a senior ball player; he did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Belleville coach Calvin Norman said of Beasley. “He came through in the clutch. When he ran the ball, he did his thing. I have nothing but love for the young man.”
Belleville cornerback Adrian Walker made one of the more remarkable plays of the weekend late in the first quarter, intercepting a Marshall pass deep in A&T territory.
Walker got both hands on the pass, deflecting it up and toward himself as he was spinning up the field. The ball went over his head and Walker reached behind his back to make the catch at the A&T 26.
Four plays later, Belleville was on the board with a 16-yard Colbey Reed touchdown run, and the Tigers led 7-6.
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T quarterback Isaiah Marshall stretches for the game-winning touchdown during Sunday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Warriors ended the night by raising their first championship trophy. (Below) Belleville’s Adrian Walker (2) makes a stunning behind-the-back interception. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)