Football Teams Mourn, Regroup, Remember

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

September 2, 2015

CLINTON TOWNSHIP – A rash of deaths of high school football players in Macomb County and elsewhere in the Detroit area has shaken those communities and the football programs within them.

Three football players at Clinton Township Chippewa Valley have died in the past 16 months. This past May, two players from Sterling Heights Stevenson and one from Utica Ford died in a horrific automobile crash at Stoney Creek Metro Park. Another football player at Southfield High drowned in a swimming pool shortly before the start of practice last month.

One player at Chippewa Valley died of cancer, another died from injuries suffered as the result of an accident that took place in a home and the third died Aug. 5, five days before the first official day of practice, in an all-terrain vehicle crash that took place in the northeast region of the Lower Peninsula.

Chippewa Valley coach Scott Merchant played for coach Al Fracassa at Birmingham Brother Rice and then went on to play at Albion College before becoming a coach. Merchant remains shaken by the tragic events that have befallen his program.  

In addition to the deaths of his players, two parents of former players, one only 46 years old, died during this time frame.

“They don’t give out manuals for this,” Merchant said. “It’s taken a lot out of me, personally. I don’t know. I’ve spent so much time away from my family, going to hospitals, going to funeral homes. You’re talking about young people’s lives here.

”I don’t know. I go to church. I believe in God. He has a plan. It’s hard to look a 16- or 17-year-old in their eyes and make sense of it all.”

Coaches coach, but there is so much more they are asked to do. They are expected to be mentors. They are often expected to be father figures. Sometimes they act as counselors, even if it isn’t in their job description. Perhaps most importantly they are leaders. They instruct their coaches and give them responsibilities. Players follow their directives and look to them for guidance.

On top of this, coaches are expected to be successful on the field. And a vast majority accept these responsibilities and a modest financial reward with a smile.

But when one of their players dies while still in high school, coaches must also remain emotionally strong for those who are too young to comprehend the finality.

Words of encouragement and a strong embrace can go a long way in times of trouble.

“We tell them, we’re here for you,” Merchant said. “We love you. We’re all hurting. We tell them there are two options. You can quit and be miserable. Or you can get off the ground and keep their memory alive.”

Nick Ureel was a senior at Chippewa Valley when he died of cancer in April 2014. Ureel played football his first two years but the cancer, which began in his testicles, prevented him from playing his junior and senior years.

Alex Mackmin was 16 years old when he died this May. He played on the junior varsity as a sophomore last season.

Merchant held workouts on Aug. 3 and 4 before letting his players go and enjoy the final few days before the start of practice Aug. 10. Duncan Blair, a senior who would compete for a starting position at linebacker, travelled north on vacation. He died while riding a four-wheel off-road vehicle that struck a tree.

Coincidentally the Mackmin and Blair families attended the same church in Utica. Both funerals were held at that church.

Blair’s parents rode the fan bus to Wayne State University for Chippewa Valley’s opener against Lake Orion. Rhys Blair runs the concession stand at Chippewa Valley.

The circumstances were much different for the players who died in the crash in early May in northern Macomb County – but it was no less tragic.

Jonathan Manolios and Emanuel Malaj from Stevenson and Michael Wells from Utica Ford were killed in a car crash. All three played varsity football as juniors in 2014. Two other high school students were injured in the crash and both survived. All five were 17 years old at the time of the crash.

Last season was Kevin Frederick’s first as head coach at Stevenson. He was the former head coach at Whittemore-Prescott.   

Frederick had never dealt with anything like this before.

“It was devastating,” he said. “We had a meeting with the kids at school and discussed why it happened. There were grief counselors available. I did meet with some of the parents. Some reached out and said their son wasn’t handling it well.

“We warned our kids not to go on social media after. People forget (the students) were very young. There were some very unkind things said on social media. Alcohol was involved. Their mistake cost them their lives. We tell them to think before you get into a car. Think before you take a drink.

“Scott’s circumstances were different. Kids act in a way … it costs them dearly. Some walk away and grow. This time they didn’t walk away.”

Chippewa Valley and Stevenson are members of the Macomb Area Conference Red, and the teams will play Sept. 11 at Stevenson. Both coaches say they will do something to remember those who died. 

Chippewa Valley opens its home season a week later against Warren Cousino. Merchant said his players will wear black jerseys instead of their traditional red to remember those who died.

“Football isn’t an escape,” Merchant said. “It’s a distraction. It takes your mind off of it, but it really doesn’t. We have pictures of all three (students) in our locker room. They are there to remind us.”

Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area but also contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Chippewa Valley players are wearing the numbers of three deceased teammates on the backs of their helmets this season. (Middle) Coach Scott Merchant addresses his players after last week's win against Lake Orion at Wayne State University. 

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.)