DETROIT – All Mendon, all the time.
That was the story of Friday morning’s Division 8 Football Final at Ford Field. It’s also the best way to describe the Hornets’ season, which ended with a 33-0 win over Fowler to claim their 11th MHSAA football championship.
After entering the postseason tied for the top spot in The Associated Press’ Division 8 state poll, Mendon took down four other ranked teams on the way to the title – including the No. 9 Eagles, who were making their first Finals appearance since 1998.
The 11 MHSAA titles is tied for third-most with East Grand Rapids, and just two off Farmington Hills Harrison’s record 13. Friday marked Mendon’s first Finals appearance – and championship – since 2007.
“At the beginning of the season, you know you want to be a state champion. But you can’t think like that because you’ve got to take one game at a time. Then you finally get here and you’re in awe,” Mendon senior linebacker Cody Bingaman said. “You don’t know how to react. And then the coaches calm you down and get your nerves settled down, and you just go and play like it’s another game.
“We just looked at it like another game we had to win.”
Mendon junior Tyler Harris opened the scoring with an 84-yard punt return touchdown – second-longest in MHSAA Finals history – just 2:44 into the game.
The game was closer than its 21-0 score seemed to indicate during the first half, but Mendon held Fowler to just 62 yards of offense over the final two quarters.
Harris ran for 92 yards and two more touchdowns, and senior Tanner Cook had 95 and a touchdown on the ground. Senior quarterback Chance Nightingale also ran for a score. Junior linebacker Rodney Arnott and Cody Bingaman each had 12 tackles.
“Someone outside asked me to rank this team with all the teams we’ve had, and I certainly can’t do that. But I can rank the schedule,” said Mendon coach John Schwartz, who has led the Hornets through 23 seasons. “Battling through that 14-game schedule that we had, against some of the teams we played … spread teams, we played teams that like to pound it. This is a well-seasoned football team. They have seen everything, and it showed.”
The Eagles (11-3) were making their first Finals appearance since 1998 and in just their second season under coach Craig Koenigsknecht – who played on Fowler’s 1993 team that won the first of the school’s four MHSAA championships. Fowler is 20-4 over the last two years, and took a number of next steps this fall after entering the playoffs 9-0 in 2010 and then losing in the Pre-District round.
“I’m not saying that these guys were just satisfied by being here. (But) they’ve got to understand the caliber of teams that get to this point, and what we have to do to get ourselves to play that standard of football when it gets this late in the season,” Koenigsknecht said. “Bottom line, if we want to do good things next season, we have to work that much harder in the offseason so we can be quicker off the ball, stay on blocks a little bit better, hit the hole a little bit harder and tackle a little bit better.”
Junior linebacker Tyler Koenigsknecht led the Eagles with 11 tackles.
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.)