Manchester’s football team is going through a re-birth.
One of the team’s top players – senior Jaxon McGuigan – calls it a change in culture.
“This summer, when we were having workouts or lifting, we had 30 guys show up every time,” said McGuigan, the team’s leading receiver. “When I was younger, there were times we would have only 10 guys. If we had 10 guys there now, we knew something would be wrong.”
Manchester is one of the oldest prep football programs in the state. It also has been one of the most successful. From 2003-16, the Flying Dutchmen made the playoffs 13 of 14 seasons, including a streak of nine straight. Then, for a variety of reasons, the bottom fell out.
Manchester went from 9-2 and a Cascades Conference championship in 2015 to back-to-back 4-5 seasons in 2017 and 2018, a 2-5 record in 2020 and 3-6 last season.
Head coach Ben Pack was brought in to make changes to the program. He’s delivered. Now in his third season, the Dutchmen have a signature win over three-time reigning league champion Addison and stand 4-1 midway through the season. They are firmly in the playoff hunt and are just a game behind league leader Napoleon, the only team to beat them this season. Even that was a close game until the end.
“Our numbers were so low when I got here,” Pack said. “We struggled. That first year, the COVID year, we could barely put together a scout team.
“When I got here, we had four guys returning from the previous year and six juniors who were on JV as sophomores,” Pack said. “Ten guys in the program. I had to do a lot of recruiting in the hallways. We had to get kids out for football.”
Pack is a veteran coach. He is a Jackson native who started his coaching career at Jackson High School while in college. He became the head coach at Parma Western in 1983 and headed home to Jackson after that. The Vikings put together a string of good teams, including the 1999 group that was Jackson’s first playoff qualifier.
Pack left Jackson in 2002 to become an administrator, but remained in football when he joined the Albion College staff. He returned to the high school ranks a couple of seasons ago at Parma Western as a volunteer assistant. Two seasons later he was named head coach at Manchester.
Pack has not only been recruiting in the Manchester hallways, but he’s also been busy implementing a strength program.
“We had no organized lifting program,” he said. “We had guys who would come in to lift, but nothing organized. Now the kids come in and they are working, they are getting stronger and more mature. Those kids who were freshmen and sophomores when I got here are stronger and more mature. With strength and maturity comes confidence.”
One of his players that first year was a freshman quarterback, Kannon Duffing, who made one start.
“He competed,” Pack said. “He was definitely a half-pint, but he played, and he did a nice job. He completed passes. He wasn’t ready to win, yet, but he grew from it and learned from the experience.”
Duffing completed 60 percent of his passes last year for 1,273 yards and nine touchdowns. This season, he’s been even better. Through five games, Duffing has completed 57 of 82 passes, a healthy 69.5 percent, for 821 yards and nine touchdowns. His interceptions have dropped from eight last year to just two this fall.
“We don’t throw deep a lot,” Pack said. “But what we do throw, he’s very accurate. He gets the job done. He’s the unsung hero for us. He’s the catalyst. He is the key to the whole thing.”
Wide receiver Andrew Campbell, running back Wyatt Carson and McGuigan are benefactors of Duffing’s accuracy.
“He is so good,” McGuigan said. “I know he’s going to put the ball right there. We have other good receivers, too, and he does a great job at getting us the ball. Our game plan is not to just get the ball to me.”
McGuigan is a former quarterback himself. He shifted to receiver early on in his career at Manchester and likes the move. He’s now a 6-foot-2, 170-pound college prospect. He’s a three-sport athlete with a 4.0 GPA.
Pack said McGuigan has great technique in the way he runs routes.
“Every successful team has a player or two that the other kids count on,” Pack said. “Jaxon has accepted that responsibility and is a role model for handling the pressure.”
Through five games, McGuigan has caught 37 passes for 554 yards and seven touchdowns. The biggest came with time running out against Addison and helped the Flying Dutchmen overcome a two-score deficit to defeat the Panthers. The Flying Dutchmen defense came up big in that game, too, when they put together a goal-line stand during the final moments to keep Addison out of the end zone.
“To be honest, that’s the type of game the last couple of years that we wouldn’t win,” McGuigan said. “To beat them just shows that everyone has buy-in now. It just shows how we’ve changed the culture here.”
Two weeks ago, Manchester bounced back from the Napoleon loss to win against East Jackson. McGuigan had one of his biggest games with eight catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
East Jackson coach Joe Niehaus said McGuigan is one of the most complete receivers he’s coached against.
“He runs great routes and catches virtually everything thrown to him,” Niehaus said. “On top of that, he is a threat to go the distance after the catch every single time.”
Manchester has conference games remaining against Michigan Center, Hanover-Horton, and Grass Lake. The Dutchmen are a top-10 team in Division 7 playoff points and are sitting nicely as they attempt to get back into the postseason.
“Ever since Coach Pack came here, it’s been drilled into us to trust the process,” McGuigan said. “We’re still far from where we could be as a team.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTO Manchester receiver Jaxon McGuigan holds on to the ball while Addison defenders take him out of bounds. (Photo by Mark Ball, courtesy of the Manchester football program.)
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.)