By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – When his team fell to 3-3 to start October, Warren DeLaSalle football coach Paul Verska said he was the only one who believed the Pilots could still finish this fall at Ford Field.
And he realized again before last week’s Semifinal against Southfield that his “loosey-goosey goofball group” was more than prepared for championship game pressure as his four captains danced to M.C. Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” in the snow.
The final 30 seconds of the fourth quarter were not always kind to DeLaSalle this season; all three losses, over three straight weeks, came by seven or fewer points as their opponents took the lead during the final half-minute.
“That kinda strengthened us as a team. We said we’ve pretty much got to go out and get it and not leave it behind the last 30 seconds or a minute,” Pilots senior quarterback Joey Garbarino said. “Me and the captains, pretty much the whole team, pretty much everyone knew. We knew what we could do.”
Over the last five weeks, DeLaSalle showed everyone else – and finished by earning the school’s first MHSAA football championship with a 44-8 win over Muskegon Mona Shores that probably still surprised plenty despite the Pilots’ recent body of work.
DeLaSalle (10-3) gave up only 9.9 points per game during its closing eight-game winning streak and avenged one of those losses by eliminating reigning three-time champion Birmingham Brother Rice in the Regional Final.
Mona Shores (12-2) averaged 39.5 points per game entering Friday and had run for more than 3,000 yards. But the Sailors managed only 99 on the ground and 201 total and didn’t score until the final four minutes of the third quarter.
“I told our kids when we got here that it isn’t how many Ws you have, but who you play,” Verska said. “I said we have a tough schedule, and I know we’re physical. And I knew deep down in my heart we could be more physical than them. I knew they had some great athletes, but I thought if we pounded on them, pounded on them, pounded on them, they wouldn’t go four quarters with us toe to toe.”
The quarterback conversation this week focused on Mona Shores senior Tyree Jackson. The four-year starter carried the Sailors to their first playoff game last season and through most of this school-record postseason run, but watched the end of the team’s 25-24 Semifinal win over Farmington Hills Harrison from the sideline on crutches after sustaining an injury. A University of Buffalo recruit, Jackson threw 24 touchdown passes and ran for 14 scores this season.
Garbarino hasn’t had nearly that buzz although he’s been plenty solid in succeeding a pair of quarterbacks now playing in the Big 10 – University of Michigan’s Shane Morris and Rutgers University’s Giovanni Rescigno.
Garbarino’s numbers this season were solid – 11 touchdowns passing, 10 rushing and just under 1,700 yards combined – but he saved the spectacular for Friday rushing 18 times for 85 yards and two scores and completing all seven of his passes for 89 yards and another score.
“We call the plays in the huddle, and he tells them to man up and let’s go; we’re going to get the three, four, five, six yards, whatever it is,” Verska said. “If I wanted an H-back or a fullback or tight end, this would be my guy. If I wanted a linebacker, this would be my guy. But he sacrificed for the team and played quarterback, and it’s like another fullback running with the ball when he gets it.”
DeLaSalle’s primary back was excellent Friday as well. Sophomore Allen Stritzinger ran for 175 yards on 18 carries, including a 56-yard scoring burst just more than four minutes into the second quarter that helped the Pilots build a 20-0 lead.
Senior Jake Townsley – also a standout goalkeeper on the District finalist soccer team – set an MHSAA Finals record with three field goals, from 41, 23 and 29 yards. Senior Alex Spicuzzi caught only one pass – but it was for a score. Junior linebacker Eric Rogers and senior defensive back Cooper Gammon had nine and eight tackles, respectively, as Mona Shores didn’t get past the Pilots’ 44-yard line until that scoring drive midway through the third quarter.
Jackson wouldn't say how much his injury limited him in the Final, but he battled on despite not being at 100 percent. He did complete 17 of 27 passes for 102 yards but ran for just 14. Senior running back DeOntay Moffett ran for 85 yards, but the Sailors didn’t hold onto the ball for more than 2½ minutes during a possession until, again, that scoring drive when they trailed 30-0.
They also played without junior Hunter Broersma, a starter at receiver and defensive back who was ill and unable to suit up. Junior Tyler Trovinger, the back-up quarterback and a starting defensive back, did play despite also being injured last week and caught the lone scoring pass and made 10 tackles. Junior linebacker Dominique Shermeta had 12 tackles.
“The coaching staff got here four years ago, and we had 66 kids in the program (grades) 9-12,” said Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak, who previously coached multiple levels at Muskegon High. “We go 1-8 the first year, and the kids easily could have been, ‘This is the same old thing.’ But they saw something and were able to work for something.
“I’ve been part of three state championships at Muskegon in one way or another … and this has been my favorite season. I’ll never forget these guys, ever.”
DeLaSalle had made the Finals twice before, finishing runner-up in 2006 and 2008.
PHOTOS: (Top) DeLaSalle running back Allen Stritzinger pushes ahead for yards as Mona Shores’ Austin Wingett (8) and Kentrell Eason (20) pursue. (Middle) Sailors quarterback Tyree Jackson prepares to unload a pass Friday. (Click for action photos and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
STRITZING GOES THE DISTANCE - Allen Stritzing rushed for 175 yards for Warren DeLaSalle in the Division 2 Final, 56 of it coming on this second quarter TD run.
MONA SHORES TOUCHDOWN - Muskegon Mona Shores got on the scoreboard in the third quarter on this 12-yard pass from Tyree Jackson to Tyler Trovinger.
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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.)