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.) 

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)