DETROIT – That was the motto of Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice’s football team this season.
And the Warriors had to believe it in order for Friday’s dream finish to become possible.
Brother Rice qualified for the Division 2 playoffs at 5-4 last month and after finishing just fourth in the Detroit Catholic League Central. But riding the legs of senior running back Devin Church, the Warriors finished this season with a 24-14 win over Lowell at Ford Field to earn their seventh MHSAA championship and first since 2005.
Church, who ran for more than 900 yards during the playoffs, piled up 244 and three touchdowns rushing in the Final.
“We did it to make Coach proud,” Church said. “We kept the tradition going.
“That’s everybody’s dream, to win a state title. To walk away with a ring, that’s a blessing.”
“Coach” is Al Fracassa, who finished his 43rd season by winning his 405th high school game. But this run provided a new experience for the longtime leader.
Playing in a conference that also includes Division 1 finalist Detroit Catholic Central, Division 3 finalist Orchard Lake St. Mary and playoff qualifier Warren DeLaSalle, the Warriors lost three league games by a combined four points. Brother Rice (10-4) picked up its fourth loss in Week 8 against Cincinnati LaSalle.
But wins over strong teams – Detroit Martin Luther King and Ann Arbor Pioneer among them – likely gave Brother Rice the playoff points boost it needed to get into the postseason.
“We were worried about making the playoffs again. You get down, but the kids, they taught me a lesson. They came out and they worked their tails off,” Fracassa said. “We had a motto before our season started. … Anything is possible. This motto really personifies this football team. Anything is possible, and they’re going to remember it the rest of their lives.”
Church – who will sign with Northern Illinois in February – ran the ball 33 times. His yards were the sixth-most in an MHSAA Final ever. And they were followed by some flattering comparisons from Lowell coach Noel Dean.
“I don’t want to belittle their team by making it about one player; they have a great team,” Dean said. “(Church) is a fantastic football player. One of the better ones I’ve seen. And I’ve coached against some pretty good running backs in my day. The Grady brothers and the Ducketts, I’ve seen some pretty good ones. He’s fantastic.”
Fracassa added: “He’s done that all year, for the last three years. This is not only his good game he played. He’s played good in every game he’s played.”
And while Church ran wild, the Warriors were able to contain Lowell all-state quarterback Gabe Dean, who was making his third straight appearance in the Division 2 Final. A senior now, he led the Red Arrows to a championship game win in 2009
Dean did throw for 190 yards and two touchdowns, but was able to get free for just 34 yards on the ground as Lowell (12-2) attempted to catch up, and catch Church, most of the afternoon.
“The veer offense, we learned how to shut it down this week in practice. And we did a great job in the game,” Brother Rice junior linebacker Jon Reschke said. “We got them out of the veer and into a shotgun formation, the spread offense, which they didn't want to be in, which helped us.”
Senior linebacker Mark Doman had a team-high 13 tackles for Brother Rice, and Reschke had 10. Junior linebacker Reed Stormzand had 20 to lead Lowell, followed by sophomore linebackers Garrett Stehley and Jake Stehley with 14 and 12, respectively.
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.)