By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
This season’s “Drive for Detroit” is in its final stretch as 32 teams prepare to play in 11-Player Semifinals on Saturday.
Of those 32, only 11 made it this far a year ago – and we’re guaranteed at least three new champions next week at Ford Field.
As always, we encourage you to bundle up and grab a seat in the stands. But if you’d rather watch from the comforts of home, this weekend we again will have all 16 Semifinals available, either on FOXSportsDetroit.com or MHSAA.tv. (Click for the full schedule.)
All games are 1 p.m. Saturday. “Drive for Detroit” is powered by MI Student Aid
Clarkston (10-2) vs. Saline (11-1) at Okemos
The reigning Division 1 champion Wolves have given up a combined 13 points over three playoff games, and 6-foot-5, 270-pound sophomore Rocco Spindler is among the leading tacklers with 76 from his defensive tackle spot. Saline has been similarly stifling giving up 26 points total in its playoff wins and has a reliable runner in senior Brendan Munday (1,160 yards/ 14 TDs rushing).
Belleville (12-0) vs. Clinton Township Chippewa Valley (12-0) at Troy Athens
Belleville built on its second straight perfect regular season by making the Semifinals for the first time with a sophomore, Christian Dhue-Reid, running the show at quarterback. Chippewa Valley’s first Semifinal run since 2003 has been keyed in part by senior signal-caller Tommy Schuster (1,480 yards/21 TDs passing).
Midland (9-3) vs. Muskegon Mona Shores (11-1) at Grand Ledge
Mona Shores’ only loss this fall came to Division 3 contender Muskegon, and senior running back/linebacker Sincere Dent (1,228 yards/24 TDs rushing, 8.8 yards per carry) is among the standouts leading the way. Senior running back/linebacker Christian Gordon (1,408/20/7.2) provides similar impact for Midland.
Birmingham Groves (10-2) vs. Warren DeLaSalle (10-2) at Hazel Park
Junior quarterback Markis Alexander (1,337 yards/13 TDs passing) has Groves on a 10-game winning streak and playing its second Semifinal in three seasons. Reigning Division 2 champion Warren DeLaSalle has locked down its three playoff opponents to a combined 20 points. Senior Evan Vaillancourt scored in last year’s Final and leads the team with 576 yards and 12 TDs rushing.
Zeeland East (11-1) vs. Muskegon (12-0) at Grand Haven
The reigning Division 3 champion Big Reds have marched again with junior quarterback Cameron Martinez (2,177 yards/33 TDs rushing, 610 yards/11 TDs passing) taking over where last year’s star La’Darius Jefferson left off. But Zeeland East hardly can be overlooked; the Chix are playing in their first Semifinal since 1989 (which was prior to the opening of Zeeland West) and with their only loss by four to reigning Division 4 champion Grand Rapids Catholic Central. Senior quarterback Gabe Taylor and senior running back Joshua Fusco have combined to run for 3,162 yards.
Detroit Martin Luther King (10-2) vs. DeWitt (12-0) at Brighton
King senior quarterback Dequan Finn is considered one of the state’s most unstoppable with 1,086 yards and 19 touchdowns rushing and 1,787 yards and 20 TDs passing. The Crusaders are playing in their fourth straight Semifinal, with the last three in Division 2. DeWitt emerged from its third straight Regional Final to make the Semifinals for the first time since 2013. Senior quarterback Blake Gatfield has thrown for 1,226 yards and 14 scores and is the team’s second-leading rusher with 503 yards plus 12 scores.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-1) vs. Edwardsburg (12-0) at Vicksburg
This is a rematch of last season’s championship game, won by GRCC 42-31. Edwardsburg will look to avenge with senior fullback Caden Goggins (1,185 yards/20 TDs rushing) pacing the Eddies’ powerful run-based attack. Many names are different for GRCC, which has lost only to Division 1 contender Saline. Senior quarterback Joe Collins has stepped in with 2,215 yards and 27 touchdowns through the air.
Chelsea (9-3) vs. Williamston (10-2) at Walled Lake Northern
Both have navigated some close ones this run, with Chelsea winning two playoff games by seven points apiece and Williamston with one seven-pointer. Chelsea is back in the Semifinals for the first time since 2015, with senior quarterback Quinn Starkey throwing for 2,091 yards and 22 touchdowns. Williamston is returning to the Semifinals for the first time since 2010. Hornets senior quarterback Austin Stiffler has been nearly identically effective, throwing for 2,181 yards and 22 scores.
Hudsonville Unity Christian (10-2) vs. Saginaw Swan Valley (12-0) at Greenville
Last year’s Division 5 runner-up Swan Valley is coming off its closest game this season, a 36-28 win over Reed City, a win which also was its first decided by single digits since Week 1. Senior quarterback Alex Fries ran the show last season as well, and he’s thrown for 1,547 yards and 22 touchdowns. Unity Christian is playing for its first trip to the Finals and relies on a rushing attack that’s gained more than 3,700 yards. Junior Hayden Large has gained 1,143 of them and run for 12 scores.
Marine City (10-2) vs. Portland (12-0) at Howell
Portland’s strength has been a defense giving up 7.7 points per game, but the Raiders are also coming off one of their highest-scoring outputs in a 40-6 win over Frankenmuth in the Regional Final. Senior Jacob Veale leads the strong ground attack with 1,505 yards and 24 touchdowns. Marine City chews up yards on the ground as well with junior Aren Sopfe (1,087 yards/14 TDs) and senior Jack Kretzschmar (901/11) carrying the load. The Mariners have had two of their four highest-scoring games over the last two weeks.
Montague (10-2) vs. Traverse City St. Francis (12-0) at Mount Pleasant
These two have combined for an 82-11 record over the last four seasons, and both are seeking to make the Finals for the first time since 2009. Senior Bryce Stark has shouldered much of the rushing load for Montague with 1,422 yards and 24 touchdowns. Senior Danny Passinault leads a similarly strong run attack for the Gladiators with 1,201 yards and 18 scores.
Montrose (10-2) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (11-0) at Novi
The Rams are seeking to reach their first championship game since 2002 and will take on the reigning Division 6 champion Titans with a balanced attack led by senior Devante Bedford (1,617 yards/26 TDs rushing) and sophomore quarterback Bobby Skinner (1,431/20 passing). Lumen Christi still does what it’s done to win the last two championships and three over the last decade – combine tough defense with a dominating rush attack, led this season by senior Nick Thomas (1,634 yards/29 TDs).
New Lothrop (11-1) vs. Lake City (12-0) at Clare
Fresh off eliminating two-time Division 7 champion Pewamo-Westphalia, New Lothrop takes on another undefeated contender in Lake City. Junior quarterback Avery Moore is dangerous in multiple ways with 1,375 yards and 20 touchdowns rushing and 1,452 yards and 20 more scores passing for the Hornets. Lake City, which fell to P-W in a Semifinal a year ago, has already outscored last year’s team and is giving up half as many points through just one fewer game. Lake City also has a multi-talented quarterback – senior Matt Holt has run for 1,496 yards and 18 scores and thrown for 1,550 yards and 17 TDs.
Cassopolis (12-0) vs. Madison Heights Madison (12-0) at Jackson
One of the state’s most impressive defenses from Cassopolis will take on a high-flying offense from Madison. The Rangers are outscoring opponents by an average of 46-4, with senior running back Tyrese Hunt-Thompson the team’s leading rusher (859 yards/19 TDs) and receiver (314/6). Madison’s average margin of victory is a little less at 39-9 but has come mostly against much larger schools. Senior quarterback Austin Brown has thrown for 1,766 yards and 21 scores and run for 1,696/29.
Breckenridge (12-0) vs. Harbor Beach (11-1) at Chesaning
The Huskies have stretched their best season ever to their first Semifinal with a stalwart defense giving up four points per game. Senior dual threat quarterback Carter Staley leads with 926 yards and 10 touchdowns passing and also a team-best 882 yards rushing with 12 scores on the ground. Harbor Beach is back in the Semifinals for the fourth time this decade coming off its third shutout in five weeks. Junior running back/linebacker Devin Pfaff is key on both sides of the ball, rushing for a team-high 1,234 yards and 20 scores.
Holton (8-4) vs. Reading (12-0) at Battle Creek Harper Creek
Holton’s memorable run began after the team lost its last three regular-season games but made the playoffs as an additional qualifier. After reaching the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Red Devils have won their first District and Regional titles. Senior Aaron Herron has run for 1,548 yards and 19 touchdowns. Next up is Reading, coming off its sixth shutout of the season and averaging 50 points per game. Senior fullback Ethan LoPresto is tough to bring down; he’s averaging 12.6 yards per carry with 2,209 plus 26 TDs total on the ground.
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PHOTO: Portland's offense lines up during last week's Division 5 Regional Final win over Frankenmuth. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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.)