Finals Four: Ithaca Adds to Title Streak

November 29, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – As the final seconds ticked down in Friday’s Division 6 Final, Ithaca’s players predictably began throwing four fingers into the air – signifying their fourth straight MHSAA title.

But the Yellowjackets could’ve chosen instead to press a thumb and fingertip together and form a zero – as in how many times they’ve lost during this greatest run in state football history.

Ithaca re-claimed a tie with Iowa City Regina (Iowa) for the nation’s longest active winning streak of 56 straight by climbing back from an early deficit to beat Clinton 41-22 at Ford Field.

The Yellowjackets’ run of perfection also is the longest in MHSAA history to occur entirely during the playoff era. Only Hudson, with 72 straight wins between 1968-75, put together a longer streak – and the Tigers’ included only one playoff win before they fell in the first-ever MHSAA Class C Final.

Also, only two teams have won more consecutive titles than Ithaca; East Grand Rapids and Farmington Hills Harrison achieved five straight apiece.

“We have a huge target on our back, and we all know that. As a team, we handle it pretty well,” said Ithaca senior quarterback Travis Smith, who finished his career 41-0 as a starter and as the only player who dressed for all four Finals wins. 

“We left the whole winning streak for our community to play with. We don’t really think about it too much. We just focus on the task at hand, which is what our coaching staff says all the time. And I’m just so proud of my team and my friends.”

Despite the convincing final score, Ithaca did trail Clinton into the third quarter. Amazingly, the Yellowjackets trailed in all of the final four playoff games this fall. 

Coach Terry Hessbrook, in his 10th season running the program and a former Ithaca standout himself, called three of the running backs his team faced during the run – Maple City Glen Lake’s Trevor Apsey, Negaunee’s Tyler LaJoie and Clinton junior Collin Poore – among the best Ithaca has ever faced. Then there was the more sizable Montrose, which provided the season’s greatest scare before falling to the Yellowjackets by a point in the Semifinal.

“We’ve been behind four playoff weeks in a row. It just does not seem to faze them,” Hessbrook said of his players. “With the big heavy weight, burden, on their shoulders and the bulls eye and the winning streak and all that kind of stuff, I’ve got to believe that a lot of high school kids would crumble under that kind of pressure. 

“These guys are going to go on to do amazing things in life because they’re special people.”

But it was Clinton (13-1) that appeared early to be special enough to end Ithaca’s streak. The Redskins capped their best season ever by making their first MHSAA Final. 

“I came last year to watch Ithaca play. Just coming to play the game is totally different,” Clinton senior quarterback T.J. Baker said. “I knew I was nervous right when I stepped on the first. It was just crazy to play in this game. But at the same time, it was fun. Our community has never been here before, and it was just a fun game to play in.”

After Ithaca jumped to a 14-0 lead, Clinton bounced back with a Poore 18-yard touchdown run and an 86-yard punt return score by sophomore Mathew Sexton. 

That seemed to nudge Ithaca’s offense – which finished this season with 710 points, third most in MHSAA history. Smith threw the second of his four touchdown passes to give Ithaca back the lead heading into halftime, and followed another Poore score at the start of the third quarter with two more scoring passes and a scoring run.

Smith also returned an interception 30 yards for a touchdown during the first quarter, giving him a hand in all six Ithaca scores. He finished his high school career with an MHSAA record 104 touchdown passes, and in this game 123 yards rushing and 247 passing. 

“He lived up to his billing,” Clinton coach Scott McNitt said. “We did the best we could against him. And for two and a half quarters, we felt we were right there. And then it just got away from us a bit, and the momentum changed.

“I couldn’t be more proud of a group of young men who overcame a lot of adversity. To make it to the state finals, it’s unheard of where we come from.” 

Hessbrook said everything he feared about Clinton seemed to go wrong for his team during the first half. Poore finished with 125 yards rushing and the team as a whole had 254, taking advantage of its perimeter speed to get around the corner on pitch sweeps and other similar runs for 208 of those yards during the first half.

But the Yellowjackets made the necessary adjustments during the third quarter, taking away that edge while bringing more pressure – Ithaca finished with 13 tackles for losses including seven sacks.

Senior Josh Hafner caught two of the scoring passes from Smith, and senior Eli Villalobos had six catches for 82 yards and a score. Senior Logan Hessbrook also had six catches, for 93 yards and a score, to follow last season’s performance when he stepped in for an injured Smith at quarterback and led the team to the title. 

“You’re playing with your best friends you’ve grown up with your whole life. It’s the best group of friends I’ve ever had and could ask for,” said Hessbrook, who also is the coach’s nephew. “And the coaching staff and the community, it’s amazing. 

“Ithaca’s a special place. Coach says that; everyone says that. And when I get out of college, I’m going to try to come right back to Ithaca, because it’s amazing to live there.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca senior Josh Hafner (14) leaps over two Clinton defenders on the way to one of his two touchdowns. (Middle) Ithaca quarterback Travis Smith holds tight to the ball after a big hit from Clinton’s Mathew Sexton. (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography.) 

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)