By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Every November, the MHSAA Football Finals give players, coaches and fans an opportunity to see what everyone else has been talking about.
These last two weekends were no different. We saw powers restored and others emerging. We witnessed two first-time winners finish perfect seasons and another champion win for the fifth straight year. We enjoyed performances from some of the talented stars we’d only read about, and encores by others returning to the championship round – including the now-winningest coach in Michigan high school history.
Second Half covered all 10 championship games last weekend at Ford Field and two weekends ago at the Superior Dome, with quick recaps and links (click on the game scores) to those stories below followed by notations of performances entered into the MHSAA record book and a report on some of the biggest and best stories to emerge from the 2017 Finals.
Finals in Review
11-Player Division 1: Clarkston 3, West Bloomfield 2
This one had an intriguing circumstance from the start: West Bloomfield, playing its first Final, had tied for first and Clarkston finished third in the Oakland Activities Association Red during the regular season with the Lakers beating the Wolves 37-16 in Week 4. The rematch ended with the second fewest points scored in MHSAA Finals history.
11-Player Division 2: Warren DeLaSalle 41, Livonia Franklin 6
DeLaSalle took its lead 16 seconds into the game on a fumble return touchdown and never slowed down in winning its second championship in four seasons. Franklin, playing in its first title game since 1975, had turnovers on three of its first four possessions (and a turnover on downs to end the other one) and never got rolling again.
11-Player Division 3: Muskegon 28, Farmington Hills Harrison 10
Muskegon won its first championship since 2008 after finishing runner-up four of the last five seasons. The Big Reds finished one of the most impressive runs in recent playoff history, winning on average by 37 points over its five postseason victories. Harrison – led by all-time winningest coach John Herrington – did give Muskegon one of its toughest tests.
11-Player Division 4: Grand Rapids Catholic Central 42, Edwardsburg 31
After winning a 2016 Division 4 title game that saw only 17 points scored between the two teams, GRCC repeated in a game featuring 73. The Cougars came back from an early deficit as standout running back Nolan Fugate put together one of the top rushing performances in Finals history. The Eddies were playing in their first championship game and made this arguably the most entertaining of the weekend.
11-Player Division 5: Grand Rapids West Catholic 34, Saginaw Swan Valley 7
Grand Rapids West Catholic tied two more programs by winning its fifth straight MHSAA championship, jumping out to a 34-0 lead led by three-year quarterback Gaetano Vallone and a number of others who have contributed to multiple titles. Swan Valley was making its first Finals appearance, but will be a strong candidate to return next fall.
11-Player Division 6: Jackson Lumen Christi 40, Ithaca 34
What was expected to be one of the most competitive Finals didn’t disappoint, as the Titans came back from a 13-8 halftime deficit to repeat. They put up some of the biggest rushing numbers in championship game history to offset the dual danger posed by Ithaca quarterback Joey Bentley, who threw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter as the Yellowjackets worked for a chance to win.
11-Player Division 7: Pewamo-Westphalia 21, Saugatuck 0
These teams met in the playoffs for the third straight season but first in a championship game. P-W, despite losing quarterback/defensive end Jimmy Lehman to a hand injury near the end of the second quarter, hung on through a scoreless second half to repeat as champion.
11-Player Division 8: Ottawa Lake Whiteford 42, Saginaw Nouvel 21
Whiteford returned after finishing runner-up in 2016 to claim its first MHSAA football championship. The Bobcats got on the board before the first minute was over and totaled 484 yards as quarterback Thomas Eitniear and running back Logan Murphy both ran for three touchdowns.
8-Player Division 1: Central Lake 32, Deckerville 30
Central Lake came back from 2-7 last season, its last in 11-player, and 10 points down during the second half of this game to win its first MHSAA football championship and first in any sport since 1980. The Trojans went ahead to stay with 2:49 to play.
8-Player Division 2: Crystal Falls Forest Park 54, Portland St. Patrick 12
The Trojans claimed their first championship since 2007 and first as an 8-player program, but in similar style as their 11-player winners. Forest Park ran for 481 yards and built a 30-point lead by halftime.
Clarkston’s three points against West Bloomfield tied the record for fewest by a winning team (with Ann Arbor Pioneer’s 1987 team) and the five points scored between the teams ranked as the second fewest for a Final. The two also combined to tie the record for most punts, with 14, with Clarkston’s Jermaine Roemer tying the individual Finals record with eight.
Brandan Madigan made the “quickest touchdown” list by returning a fumble return 13 yards for a touchdown 16 seconds into Warren DeLaSalle’s Division 2 win. Warren DeLaSalle also tied for the third-most points in a quarter, putting up 31 during the second in its win over Livonia Franklin.
Warren DeLaSalle’s Riley Garrison and Grand Rapids West Catholic’s Liam Putz both drilled two field goals, joining seven others who have done the same (two hold the record at three field goals). Garrison also made the extra points list with five on five tries.
Farmington Hills Harrison broke the record it previously held with Detroit Catholic Central by playing in an 18th MHSAA championship game, this its first since 2010. The MHSAA Football Playoffs began in 1975.
Muskegon sits 11th with 10 MHSAA Finals appearances and moved up to tied for 10th with six championships. La’Darius Jefferson earned multiple entries with his 245 yards and four touchdowns rushing, tying for fourth-most points (24) in one Final, third most total touchdowns and also rushing touchdowns in a game and eighth most rushing yards.
Harrison’s Ben Williams earned entries for his 91-yard opening kickoff touchdown, both among the longest kickoff returns and fastest touchdowns (16 seconds into the game) scored in a Final.
Nolan Fugate capped his career with one more jaw-dropping rushing performance. The Grand Rapids Catholic Central running back ran for 306 yards, one shy of tying the Finals record, and his 392 total yards ranked seventh all-time. He did tie Finals records with five touchdowns and 30 points and tied for third with four rushing scores. Kicker Alec Winden tied for the fourth-most extra points making all six of his tries.
Edwardsburg also took home two Finals records, as Nick Bradley tied the longest running play with a 90-yard touchdown dash; his run equaled Nick Williams’ for Farmington Hills Harrison in 1994. Caden Goggins tied the 2014 record set by Tommy Scott of Muskegon Catholic Central by bringing a kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown.
Grand Rapids West Catholic moved up lists with its eighth MHSAA Finals appearance and sixth championship, and into a first-place tie with a fifth-straight title. Farmington Hills Harrison 1997-2001 and East Grand Rapids 2006-2010 also won five consecutive Finals. Grand Rapids Catholic Central also moved up the Finals appearances list with its seventh, while Jackson Lumen Christi is tied for eighth most with 12 and Ithaca added its seventh as well. Lumen Christi’s championship was its 10th, good to tie for the sixth-most titles.
Jackson Lumen Christi became the third team to rush for more than 500 yards in a Final, its 514 yards the third most and its 67 carries second. Sebastion Toland ran for 244 yards – ninth-most by one player – and teammate Kyle Minder made that list with 206 yards. The team’s 523 yards of total offense tied for fifth most, and its 24 first downs tied for eighth.
Ithaca’s Joey Bentley made his last game another great one, even in defeat. His four touchdown passes tied for fifth-most in a championship game, and his 329 total yards of offense – 89 rushing, 240 passing – also earned a record book entry.
Ottawa Lake Whiteford’s offense impressed to open Finals weekend, tying for third with six rushing touchdowns and becoming the latest of 24 teams that did not punt in a championship game.
Crystal Falls Forest Park set an 8-Player Finals record with 481 yards on the ground, rushing 52 times without throwing a pass. Peter Ropiak had the second-most yards in one game, 275 on 16 carries, while backfield mate Connor Bortolini was added for scoring 26 points on four rushing touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Ropiak’s total yards also qualified in the total offense category, and the team’s eight rushing touchdowns also set a record.
Central Lake made the rushing list with 316 yards in its 8-Player Division 1 win over Deckerville, and also the first downs list with 21.
Portland St. Patrick’s Colin Cook was added for seven punts in the 8-Player Division 2 game against Forest Park. Cook averaged 34.1 yards per punt with a long of 63.
Stories behind the scores
Repeat again: For the second straight season, there were four repeat champions at the 11-Player Finals – this time, as noted above, Grand Rapids Catholic Central in Division 4, Grand Rapids West Catholic in Division 5, Jackson Lumen Christi in Division 6 and Pewamo-Westphalia in Division 7. Also noted above, West Catholic next fall will attempt to become the first team in MHSAA football history to win six straight titles.
First-time celebrations: Ottawa Lake Whiteford in 11-Player Division 8 and Central Lake in 8-Player Division 1 claimed their first championships, showing off powerful running games against opponents who had won championships previously – Whiteford over Saginaw Nouvel and Central Lake over Deckerville.
Running ran the day(s): In an era of wide-open spread offenses, power running ruled the 2017 Finals. Start with Whiteford and Central Lake mentioned above; Crystal Falls Forest Park set an 8-Player Finals record for rushing while Jackson Lumen Christi put rushers on the all-time record book list for the second straight season. Muskegon threw two passes and didn’t complete any in running away in Division 3, and the Division 4 Final between GRCC and Edwardsburg featured a combined 675 rushing yards.
We may never see this again: Clarkston’s 3-2 win over West Bloomfield was the lowest-scoring Final in 30 years, but how the teams got to five total points might end up rarer. Clarkston’s points, of course, came on a field goal by Roemer from 30 yards out on the final play of the second quarter. But to that point, West Bloomfield led for 15 minutes thanks to a safety when a punt snap sailed through the end zone. For unrelated comparison’s sake, two of our four Baseball Finals in the spring were higher scoring, and only one was decided by the same close margin.
Hawks’ last stand: Farmington Hills Harrison finished something of an unexpected run by playing in its 18th MHSAA football championship game, capping the season that saw Herrington become the winningest coach in state history with a 435-108-1 record. The school will close in spring 2019, and Herrington will coach the final season next fall; he has served as coach since the school opened in 1970. Harrison’s enrollment likely will fall without the usual underclassmen next year – which could make the Hawks an interesting contender staying in Division 3 or moving into Division 4 or 5.
The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
Ben Jones always had the same, simple message, even if it was 100 degrees and sunny or 35 degrees and raining sideways, and whether he was playing for a powerhouse like Muskegon Catholic Central or coaching a program trying to establish itself at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood.
“We get to play football today,” Jones would say, as many of those around him were complaining and grumbling.
It was never “have to” for Jones, but always “get to.”
Jones, who was about to start his second year as head coach at Cranbrook, had his life tragically cut short by a drunk driver who crashed into his vehicle as he was traveling home from work in Detroit on Aug. 19, 2020. He was just 30 years old.
While Jones is gone, leaving a hole as large and painful as the 6-foot-2, 260-pound frame he carried as a tight end in his senior year at Hillsdale College, that “Get To” mentality is alive and well, and thriving and growing – thanks in large part to the efforts of his football teammates from Muskegon Catholic and later at Hillsdale.
The Get To Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was formed in Jones’ honor and has grown exponentially in less than three years, providing grants to sports organizations and scholarships to student-athletes.
“There is a core group of about 10 of them that have worked on (the foundation), and it’s been amazing,” said Theresa Jones, Ben’s mother, who with her husband Bruce has worked with the foundation. “It started small, and then it caught fire.”
The president of the foundation is Tim Hornak, Jones’ best friend and teammate in the trenches at both Muskegon Catholic and Hillsdale. Hornak returned to deliver a pre-game speech before the Crusaders’ home game on Sept. 15 against Kalamazoo United, where he talked about the man who is the inspiration behind the rapidly-growing Get To movement.
“You don’t have to, you get to – that simple difference can change your lives,” said Hornak, who teamed with Jones when both were seniors to help the Crusaders to a 14-0 record and the Division 8 championship in 2008. “You get to play football tonight and continue the tradition that started here in the 1950s.
“You get a chance to line up and play a great game with your best friends.”
Inspired by Hornak’s words and Jones’ legacy, the Crusaders downed Kalamazoo United 27-7 that night, the team’s second-straight win after an 0-2 start, which put them back in the Division 8 playoff picture.
A tailgate party was held before the game as a fundraiser for the Get To Foundation, and it happened to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Crusaders’ 2008 championship team – arguably one of the best teams in the school’s storied history. MCC has won 12 state championships, trailing only Farmington Hills Harrison in state playoff history.
The phrase “get to,” according to Hornak, goes back to the whiteboard in the MCC locker room his sophomore year and perfectly captures Jones’ approach to life and to football, whether his team was unbeaten like at MCC or struggling like the Chargers did just after he and Hornak graduated.
Jones, who wore No. 62 at MCC, was a two-way starting lineman who also played on the Crusaders’ 2006 championship team as a sophomore. His best friends on the team were the Hornak twins, Tim and Jon, whose father Mike was an assistant coach.
After his funeral service on Aug. 24, 2020, Jones’ hearse made a stop at MCC’s Kehren Stadium on the way to the cemetery, taking a lap on the track around Mike Holmes Field.
He went on to play on three teams which won or shared Great Lakes Interscholastic Athletic Conference titles at Hillsdale, where he wore No. 91 and played tight end and H-back.
“He had an inner self-confidence that you could tell right away when talking to him,” said Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein. “He was very positive. He encouraged his teammates.”
Jones graduated from Hillsdale in 2013 with a degree in financial management and a minor in mathematics, moved to Royal Oak and took a job as a portfolio manager and financial planner at Schwartz & Co. Investment Advisors.
In his free time, he worked as an assistant varsity football coach at Cranbrook from 2015 to 2018, before being elevated to head coach in 2019 at the age of 28.
One of his first actions as head coach was getting Cranbrook football T-shirts printed with the message “Get To” on the back. Jones guided the Cranes to a 6-4 record and a Division 4 playoff berth in what would prove to be his only season as head coach.
He died nine days before Cranbrook’s scheduled season opener in 2020, which ended up being delayed six weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the immediate aftermath of Jones’ shocking death, the Hornak brothers and other former teammates vowed to do something to honor Ben and to help out his family. Out of that mission, the Get To Foundation was born.
Get To has awarded scholarships for the past three years. In 2023 alone, the foundation awarded $16,000 in scholarships to 22 student-athletes from around the state.
In addition, Get To has awarded $55,000 in grants to 17 organizations – including $3,000 to the Eaton Rapids High School football program for new shoulder pads and helmets and $2,500 to the Detroit Tigers Foundation’s Gloves for Kids program.
The next event on the foundation’s busy calendar is a speech by best-selling motivational author Jon Gordon at Lawrence Tech University on Oct. 17.
The foundation’s board has trademarked the phrase “Get To” and hopes to continue to grow the organization’s size and scope – in a way mirroring how big and impactful Ben’s life could have been if it wasn’t cut short.
For more information or to make a donation, go to the organization’s website at www.gettofoundation.org.
The relentless efforts of Ben’s ex-teammates to keep his memory alive means the world to his parents, as well as his two younger siblings – Alissa, a standout swimmer at Hillsdale who is now the school’s assistant women’s swimming coach; and Nate, who also played football for the Chargers and is now a foreign currency trader for Barclay’s, based in New York City.
Theresa Jones said coming together with all of Ben’s closest friends for Get To Foundation events has been a continuous blessing for the family.
“Every time we have an event for the foundation, it’s all of Ben’s friends and family members dressed up and having a good time,” his mother said. “It always feels like Ben’s wedding reception that he never got to have.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Ben Jones is shown before the 2008 Division 8 championship game at Ford Field during his senior year at Muskegon Catholic Central. The Crusaders defeated Crystal Falls Forest Park, 40-0. (Middle) Jones works with his linemen during his first year as head coach at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood in 2019. (Below) A plaque honoring Jones has been placed in the tunnel leading from the home locker room to the football field at Hillsdale College. (Top photo by Tim Reilly. Additional photos courtesy of the Get To Foundation.)