A total of 272 MHSAA playoff football teams has been cut in half heading into this weekend's District finals. Here's one take on the highlights from the opening weekend of the postseason – and a look at some matchups to watch as we move on to the next round.
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DIVISON 1: Canton 24, Plymouth 21 – These schools are located about five football throws from each other, and were ranked adjacently in the final Associated Press state poll; Canton was No. 6 and Plymouth was No. 5. Three weeks earlier, Plymouth beat Canton 31-30. Plymouth also knocked Canton out last season.
DIVISION 2: Rochester Adams 26, Oxford 20 – Rochester Adams has more experience this time of year, with 15 straight playoff appearances, while Oxford was making its first since 2008. But thanks to a 22-16 win over Adams on Sept. 30, Oxford was ranked No. 6 (Adams was unranked) and home for this one, which qualifies this as an upset.
DIVISION 3: Adrian 28, Carleton Airport 21 – This gets the upset tag as well, with Carleton Airport entering No. 8 in Division 3 and Adrian unranked. The Maples had snuck into the playoffs at 5-4 and after losing their regular-season finale by 14 to Traverse City West.
DIVISION 4: Detroit Crockett 13, Detroit Country Day 12 – Country Day opened with a 12-0 lead, but Crockett – ranked No. 5 – emerged with a Pre-District win for the third straight season. Crockett also downed Country Day in last season’s District final.
DIVISION 5: Hemlock 21, Carrollton 14 (OT) – These former Tri-Valley Conference West league mates needed overtime to settle their Pre-District game. Hemlock finished the regular season among those getting votes in Division 6 before moving into 5 for the postseason.
DIVISION 6: Morley Stanwood 10, Shelby 7 – Maybe the finish of the night (see explanation and link below). Also a notable upset, as Shelby was ranked No. 6 heading in – although both were 8-1 during the regular season.
DIVISION 7: Iron River West Iron County 26, Ironwood 22 – These two actually aren’t that close to each other, in case you’re wondering from their communities' similar iron-themed names. But they are league rivals going back decades, and West Iron made up for last season’s loss to Ironwood with two wins this fall – by four points this time and five when they met in mid-September.
DIVISION 8: Muskegon Catholic 28, Saugatuck 0 – This game had statewide eyes watching, with Muskegon Catholic tied for the top spot in the final state poll and No. 5 Saugatuck the reigning state runner-up.
8-PLAYER: Bellaire 76, Akron-Fairgrove 58 – The number players on the field might be fewer, but the number of points frequently are more in the 8-player game.
8: Number of overtimes, combined, needed to decide two Division I games. Romeo needed five to outlast Troy Athens 34-31, and Grand Blanc downed Holt 59-52 in three overtimes.
1: Total playoff victories for Holland High, thanks to a 27-16 win over Stevensville Lakeshore in Division 3. This was Holland's second playoff game ever.
111: Number of points combined scored by Grand Blanc and Holt, which ranks 14th in the MHSAA football record book for most points scored by two teams in a game in which the losing team finished with at least 40.
13: Number of straight seasons Marine City has led off the playoffs with a win, going back to 1999, and including this fall’s 45-21 victory against Croswell-Lexington. Marine City was ranked No. 1 in Division 4 and Croswell-Lexington was No. 8
MORE FANTASTIC FINISHES
Walled Lake Central 20, Lake Orion 17 – A fake punt followed by a 15-yard penalty eventually turned into a 20-yard winning field goal by Bryan Maxwell – and the defeat of last season’s Division 1 state champion. (Read more in the Detroit Free Press).
Temperance Bedford 28, Brighton 20 – Brighton jumped to a 20-0 lead in this Division 1 game. But Temperance Bedford quarterback Aaron Czesak ran for 133 of his 164 yards during the second half including the 27-yarder midway through the fourth quarter to give his team its final advantage. (Find out more in the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus).
Morley Stanwood 10, Shelby 7 – This was named above, but worth mentioning a second time in more detail. After Morley-Stanwood took the lead with a field goal with 2 seconds to play, Shelby brought the kickoff back to inside the Mohawks’ 1-yard line – but didn’t cross it. (Read about it in Muskegon Chronicle).
Crystal Falls Forest Park 50, Stephenson 43 – I can’t find a link to a story on this one, but the score itself means it was a wild night.
UP NEXT – DISTRICT FINALS
DIVISION 1: Canton (8-2) at Detroit Catholic Central (9-1) – By beating its closest rival, Canton earned a shot at No. 2 Detroit Catholic Central. DCC knocked Canton out in 2009.
DIVISION 2: Muskegon (8-2) at Lowell (9-1) – The Red Arrows are ranked No. 2 and Muskegon is No. 3. They’ve met in the playoffs the last three seasons, with the winner of this matchup twice eventually claiming a state title.
DIVISION 3: East Grand Rapids (7-3) at Grand Rapids Christian (10-0) – Their meeting two weeks ago – a 50-49 Eagles win – was arguably the most hyped regular-season game west of I-75. East Grand Rapids is No. 9 and Grand Rapids Christian is ranked No. 2.
DIVISION 4: Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (10-0) at Marine City (10-0) – These are two of four undefeated teams left among the top six in this state poll, with Marine City entering No. 1 and Notre Dame Prep No. 6 – and coming off a win over No. 7 Marysville last week.
DIVISION 5: Portland (9-1) at Lansing Catholic (10-0) – These two determined the CAAC White title Oct. 8, a game the top-ranked Cougars won 42-24. But if No. 3 Portland has figured out a way to at least slow Lansing Catholic quarterback Cooper Rush, the rematch could be much closer.
DIVISION 6: Ithaca (10-0) at Montrose (10-0) – Ithaca is No. 1 and Montrose is No. 2, and that right there is enough to make this arguably the biggest game of the weekend in any division. Throw in that the Yellowjackets are the reigning state champions and are riding a 24-game winning streak – and that Montrose’s last loss was to Ithaca in last season’s Regional final – and it gets that much more intriguing.
DIVISION 7: Royal Oak Shrine (9-1) at Detroit Loyola (10-0) – This might not look like as great a matchup given Loyola’s 40-0 Prep Bowl win over Shrine just two weeks ago. But Shrine still hung on to a No. 10 ranking to start the playoffs; Loyola came in No. 2.
DIVISION 8: Muskegon Catholic Central (9-1) at Mendon (10-0) – Arguably the state’s toughest District closes with a final matching the two teams that finished the regular season tied for the No. 1 spot in the state poll. The only things separating these two are a Muskegon Catholic loss (to a Class A school) and Mendon’s receiving one more top-spot vote from the Associated Press’ five-person panel.
8-PLAYER: Eben Junction Superior Central (8-2) at Rapid River (9-1) – Of the eight teams remaining in the 8-player tournament, these two had the fourth and third-highest playoff points, respectively, at the end of the regular season.
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.)