DETROIT – So began the legacy of Ithaca quarterback Travis Smith.
And so continues an incredible run by one of Michigan’s newest football powerhouses.
The Yellowjackets pushed their winning streak to 28 and claimed their second straight MHSAA championship by downing Constantine 42-14 in Friday's Division 6 Final.
They did so led by a number of last season’s top players, but minus their 2010 Final star. That’s where the sophomore Smith came in, joining the starting lineup in the season’s second week and bringing Ithaca back to Ford Field for another title.
“It’s more special just because this is the last time to suit up for most of us. We’re not going to be able to play another game next year, and we get to end on the biggest stage high school football has to offer in Michigan,” Ithaca senior linebacker/running back Garrett Miniard said.
“I think it was almost a little jealousy of the seniors last year of being able do that, being able to go out on top. I think that kept us going throughout the season, throughout the offseason. Being able to have that luxury of going out on top just like they did.
Ithaca (14-0) hasn’t lost since its 2009 Semifinal against Montague. With two more wins to start next fall, the Yellowjackets can become the 14th team on the MHSAA record book list with at least 30 straight victories.
And Smith should be there to lead the way. He connected on 18 of 25 passes for 299 yards and a touchdown Friday, and ran for 43 yards and a score. Miniard rushed for 43 yards and two touchdowns, and had 14 tackles. And senior David Brown caught six passes for 122 yards and also ran for a score.
Smith followed the path this fall of another former sophomore starter at his position – Alex Niznak, who graduated in the spring, plays at Central Michigan now, but didn’t leave before leading the Yellowjackets to both their first Semifinal berth and MHSAA championship over the last two seasons. Niznak’s title game performance last season included 251 yards passing, 138 rushing and an MHSAA Finals-record five touchdowns running the ball.
Brown originally took over at quarterback this fall. But he was injured on opening night – after running for three touchdowns against Williamston – and missed significant time, allowing Smith to take hold of the offense. Smith finished his first varsity season with a not-too-shabby 2,310 passing yards, 969 rushing yards, and a combined 48 touchdowns throwing or running.
“Coach (Terry) Hessbrook told me to just go in there and do what I can do, and just play football,” Smith said. “I’ve got so many good athletes around me. I just need to get my players the ball and let them do what they can do.”
Ithaca twice had catching up to do in the Final, with Constantine (11-3) scoring first and then taking a 14-7 lead midway through the first quarter – before the Yellowjackets rolled to 35 unanswered points.
“These kids had this goal since last year … of getting back here,” Hessbrook said. “We didn’t want Ithaca football to just be one and done, or a one-year wonder. And they’ve worked really hard.”
Constantine junior Ben Mallo did run 17 times for 189 yards and both scores. But the Falcons were without quarterback Tommy Reed, who was injured during last week’s Semifinal win over Ecorse. They played Ithaca to a 14-14 halftime tie before the Yellowjackets’ offense broke the game open.
“We’ve played offenses with that type of talent. Last week, for instance. And I’m sure Coach Hessbrook watched those films and saw some things he could do against us," Constantine coach Shawn Griffith said. "It’s a lot different than what we do, and you saw we caused them a little bit of problems early in the game as well. We do our thing, they do theirs. They do their thing very well. We did ours well. We just weren’t quite there on a couple drives that ended short.”
SOUTHFIELD — Normally, having students come up and say they won’t be in school the next day might have a school administrator seething and ready to reserve seats in the detention room.
But if there ever was a time to allow it, this was the moment.
Following a 36-32 upset of Belleville that stunned many around the state in the MHSAA Division 1 Football Final on Nov. 26, Southfield Arts & Technology senior quarterback Isaiah Marshall said he and other players made it known, “Don’t expect us in school on Monday.”
After all, the game was played and ended late on a Sunday night, the team achieved something nobody else in the community had done, and there were celebrations that needed to begin.
And for the record, the players were back in school Tuesday.
Whether it’s been in school or outside the halls of Southfield A&T, it’s been a week of historic celebrations and congratulations after the Warriors captured the first MHSAA Finals championship in school history.
Marshall said that remained the case when he attended the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis on Saturday.
“Everywhere I go, there is someone congratulating me,” he said.
Over their final decades before the schools merged in 2016, Southfield High School and Southfield-Lathrup High School had plenty of talented teams with numerous players who went on to play big-time college football and even in the NFL.
But none of those good teams was able to advance to a state championship game, let alone win it all.
“There was a lot of people that texted me and talked to me and said they graduated from the 1980s,” said Marshall, pointing out that one former player who reached out was Nic Jones, currently a member of the Kansas City Chiefs who graduated from Southfield High. “There were a lot of older people that used to go to Southfield that told me that they couldn’t do the job. They were proud of us that we could do it for them.”
Marshall said that after the game was over Sunday, he and other teammates congregated at his house at 3 a.m. to watch a replay of the game.
It was only the first time this week the replay was watched.
“We watched it that day and the day after,” Marshall said. “I think we’ve been watching it the whole week.”
A parade Saturday will start at noon at the building that housed the old Southfield-Lathrup and finish at the current school, which was the home of Southfield High before the merger. A&T then will host a celebration in the school gymnasium from 1:15-2:30 p.m.
Players will certainly soak it all in while they can, because it won’t be long before they split up.
Marshall will soon sign to play in college for Kansas and will be enrolling early there. He plans to take his last final exams at Southfield A&T next week and head to Lawrence the first week of January.
Teammate Jalen Todd will do the same as he is also committed to Kansas, while Tashi Braceful will enroll early at Toledo.
But long after this year, it’s a group that won’t be forgotten in the community, or the state after it pulled off the upset of a Belleville team that was riding a 38-game winning streak and was two-time reigning Division 1 champion.
No doubt, future reunions should be memorable and festive.
Even Marshall admitted his still rubs his eyes in amazement over what his team did.
“Yes, I still do,” he said.
Keith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T players enjoy the first moments after their Division 1 championship win at Ford Field. (Middle) The A&T band plays during a break in the action. (Below) Fans celebrate in the stands during the victory over Belleville. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)