CLINTON TOWNSHIP – Since winning the Division 2 title in 2001, Clinton Township Chippewa Valley has played in the shadow of traditional Macomb County powers Macomb Dakota, Romeo, Sterling Heights Stevenson and Utica Eisenhower.
Before this season, Chippewa Valley’s record against those four schools over the last 17 years was 26-52. The Big Reds did own a 10-8 record against Stevenson, but twice Stevenson reached MHSAA Finals while Chippewa Valley’s best showing since its championship season was a Semifinal appearance in 2003.
That trend started to change in 2017 as Chippewa Valley went 4-1 against these teams (including a second win over Dakota in the playoffs). This season, the Big Reds took another step forward posting a 6-0 mark and capturing their first outright title in the Macomb Area Conference Red.
And for the first time in program history, Chippewa Valley is 11-0. The Big Reds were 9-0 in 1975, the first season the MHSAA sponsored state playoffs, but did not qualify for the postseason (only four teams in each of the four classifications were selected for the playoffs that first year).
Scott Merchant is in his 10th season as head coach at Chippewa Valley, and the Big Reds have made the playoffs eight times during his tenure. These past two seasons have been his best by far. Last season, Chippewa Valley finished 10-2 losing to Detroit Cass Tech, 32-26, in a Division 1 Regional Final.
Most expected a rematch of that game this week. But Dearborn Fordson (10-1) upset Cass Tech last week, 41-14, and Chippewa Valley will host Fordson in the Division 1 Region 4 Final at 7 p.m. Friday. The teams have met just once before – and that game, in 2003, also took place in a Regional Final with Chippewa Valley claiming a 30-12 victory.
Merchant’s team is experienced, confident and loaded with talent. He has four three-year starters and eight seniors starting on defense.
“Dakota set the bar for the whole conference,” Merchant said of Chippewa Valley’s sister school (both are in the Chippewa Valley school system) and biggest rival. “In the mid- to late 2000s they had like five or six Regional titles. Our streak of losing to Dakota started in ’04, and I didn’t get here until ‘09. It was huge for us to win in 2014. It was the first time we beat them in 10 years. That was a big weight being lifted.”
When a team loses so often to another, especially a rival, the losses and the years often run together. For the record, here’s how bad it got for the Big Reds:
Beginning with a 7-0 loss to Dakota in a Division 1 Regional Final in 2004, the Big Reds lost 16 consecutive games to Dakota, and only six of the 16 were by 10 or fewer points. A 28-27 victory in a 2014 District Final ended this streak.
One loss stung most. In 2013, both teams were 7-0 and state-ranked. Dakota won 52-7.
“To this day I can’t explain what happened,” Merchant said. “It was one of the most disappointing losses I’ve had. A lot of it was mental.”
The tables have turned. Chippewa Valley has won five of the last six in the series and is two wins this month from reaching what would be the program’s second MHSAA Final.
The Big Reds’ success last season gave the players confidence and also fed their appetite for more. The 2017 team scored a school-record 463 points, and this season Chippewa Valley has scored 445.
The productivity is similar, but the means by which the offense this season has been successful is different. There’s a difference in personality. Last year Chippewa Valley was more of a finesse team that concentrated on the passing game. This team is more physical and its offense is geared more for the run, which is often more effective in November playoff games.
Quarterback Tommy Schuster is a three-year starter who threw for 3,100 yards over his first two seasons. His numbers (1,400 yards) are down a tad this season, but he’s thrown 20 touchdown passes and just one interception. Schuster also is carrying the ball more as he showed last week by rushing for 60 yards in the 51-10 victory over Dakota.
This added dimension has become a fine complement to the Big Reds’ top two running backs, Andre Chenault and Ja’Von Kimpson. Chenault is the team’s leading rusher with 888 yards and 13 touchdowns on 107 carries while Kimpson, who also starts at cornerback, is more of a featured back in 3rd down situations. He’s scored nine touchdowns rushing and one receiving.
“Our run game has been dominant all season,” Schuster said. “The offensive line has gotten better and better. It took a little time. They’re all (first-year) starters, and they’re confident now.”
Replacing the entire offensive line was the main concern for Merchant and his staff coming into this season. With just one senior, this group grew up fast. In the opener, Chippewa Valley trailed Saline 13-0 before the offense began to click and the Big Reds won 31-26. Senior captain Ryan Cyrowski, the center, is the leader and juniors Charles Wesley, the left tackle, and Donovan McBride, the right guard, have developed nicely. The Big Reds rushed for an-eye-popping 445 yards last week.
Merchant’s top two players could well be linebacker Marcel Lewis, who also sees time at tight end, and David Ellis. Ellis rarely comes off the field as he starts at receiver and defensive back and is a dangerous kick returner. He has 33 tackles on defense, five rushing touchdowns, six receiving scores, three more on kickoff returns and he’s returned a punt for a touchdown.
“We don’t have any weaknesses,” Schuster said. “This team, all year, hasn’t panicked. We’re ready for whatever happens. Last year’s team was like that, too. The reason we’ve been so successful (the past two seasons) is we have great players and great coaches.
“Playing quarterback on this team is a lot of fun. There’s so many options. If the run game isn’t working, we have no problem throwing the ball.
“I’ve grown up a lot over these three years. I’ve gotten to work on my speed, and I’m able to help the younger guys out too. It’s easier for me now. There’s nothing that’s new to me.”
The experience Schuster and many of his teammates have is a big reason Chippewa Valley has come out on top in a number of close games. In addition to the victory over Saline, the Big Reds held on to defeat Romeo (41-34) and Dakota (24-17) during the regular season. All three of those games were on the road.
“We’ve had way more close games this year than last,” Merchant said. “It’s been great to see the program grow.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Chippewa Valley’s defensive front lines up against Utica during a 49-0 Week 9 win. (Middle) David Ellis (8) follows his blockers into an opening against Utica Eisenhower in a 34-7 first-round playoff victory. (Photos courtesy of the Chippewa Valley athletic department.)
Separated by 527 travel miles – whether over Mackinac Bridge or around Lake Michigan, the Novara family celebrated nearly parallel football successes this fall.
At Portland, John Novara completed his 25th season as head coach leading the Raiders to a 12-1 record – their best since finishing Division 5 runner-up in 2018, and a second-straight Capital Area Activities Conference White championship on the way to reaching the Division 4 Semifinals.
At Kingsford, fifth-year coach Mark Novara led the Flivvers to a 10-2 record – their best since posting the same in 2004. Kingsford shared the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title and won a Division 5 District title, its first District championship since 2009.
John Novara graduated from Iron Mountain in 1989, and younger brother Mark graduated from Kingsford in 1993.
Similarly parallel, both teams were quarterbacked by Novaras. Dominic Novara directed the Raiders’ attack, and cousin Nic Novara led the Flivvers. Both are juniors. (Mark Novara was a Division III All-American at quarterback at Lakeland College in Wisconsin.)
One more connection: Portland athletic director Kevin Veale quarterbacked the Iron Mountain teams with John Novara as tight end long before they worked together downstate. Veale’s nephew Garrett Veale was a standout two-way lineman for Mark Novara and Kingsford this fall.
Small gesture, memorable connection
Dante DeGrazia’s senior season was sadly short-lived this fall, as he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of South Lyon East’s opening game against White Lake Lakeland at Michigan Stadium.
But an official provided a memory the DeGrazias will not forget.
Chris Curtis had begun his 16th season as an official earlier that day at U-M, and stuck around to watch the Lakes Valley Conference matchup. A month later, he was officiating the East/Warren Mott game, and made sure to check in with DeGrazia – a small gesture, but a meaningful one as well and another reminder of the interconnectedness of communities within educational athletics.
“When he heard my son wasn't able to play anymore, needed surgery and that he was a senior, he offered him kindness and a hug on the field,” Dante’s mother Dana DeGrazia wrote to East athletic director Greg Michaels. “As a parent whose son is going through a rough time dealing with losing his senior season, hearing this story from Dante means a lot to me and the support that was given to him and I wanted to reach out and tell him thank you.”
PHOTOS (Top) Kingsford football coach Mark Novara, far left, quarterback Nic Novara and Portland coach (and uncle) John Novara celebrate the Flivvers' District title. (Middle) South Lyon East's Dante DeGrazia (33) and official Chris Curtis meet for a quick hug during East's Week 5 game. (Photos courtesy of the Portland football program and DeGrazia family, respectively.)