By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
MARQUETTE – Fans wearing black and red chanted “U.P. Power” while their favorite team ran for nearly 500 yards without throwing a pass Saturday at the Superior Dome.
The Trojans, in their second season of 8-player, added a fourth MHSAA football championship running away early and often on the way to a 54-12 win in the inaugural 8-Player Division 2 Final.
The way Forest Park won, it could’ve been Ford Field or Pontiac Silverdome – where the Trojans made most of their first 13 championship game appearances. They gained an 8-Player Finals record 481 yards on 52 carries and set another record with eight rushing touchdowns.
The championship was the program's first since 2007.
“Last week, we watched 2007 states in our class, and (Saturday) was just like it,” Forest Park senior running back Connor Bortolini said. “We just stick to running the ball, and that’s what we do.
“The 2007 guys, some of them came up to us before the game, told us ‘Good luck.’ And now it’s our turn to do that.”
Senior Peter Ropiak had 275 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, sharing the backfield load with Bortolini, who totaled 196 yards and four rushing scores. Junior Calvin Post added the eighth rushing touchdown on a 1-yarder with 6:02 to play.
Bortolini scored the first just 1:47 into the game. Portland St. Patrick scored 1:26 later. And then the Trojans (10-2) put up the next 40 points, with Bortolini scoring four in a row total before Ropiak scored three consecutive.
The Trojans might have been the second or third best team in 8-player last season, but ran into Powers North Central in a Regional Final as North Central was finishing its second straight perfect season. Forest Park opened this fall 1-2, but then won its final nine games to return to the state’s elite.
“These kids don’t know the difference between 8-man and 11-man. They are out there competing. They’re out there being the best that they can be,” Trojans coach Dave Graff said. “For them to turn the page here, and do it in style where you have a sophomore middle linebacker who bench presses 115 pounds and runs a 5.5 40, a corner who’s 5-foot-5 and runs a 5-5 40. We’re doing it with people who are young, inexperienced, and yet they come out and get better every week. And they just have a new tradition, an 8-man tradition at Forest Park, and it’s good for them.”
Bortolini and Ropiak did their damage behind a line of junior guard Jacob Peterson, junior center Hal Hoenig, senior guard Robert Ponchaud and senior tight end Jonah Logan. All four weigh in between 205-240 pounds. St. Patrick has only one player tipping above 190.
“They’ve got some big bodies and they’re pretty simple – they come downhill at you,” St. Patrick coach Patrick Russman said “It’s a great scheme for them. We’ve just got to work on getting a little bigger.”
And the Trojans’ defense cannot be forgotten. St. Patrick gained only 169 yards on 43 plays, and the 12 points were the second-fewest the team scored this season as the Shamrocks averaged 35 per game. The inability to move the ball on offense kept the pressure on the defense – a lot to manage against such a productive attack.
The Shamrocks (11-2) were playing for their first football championship since 1992 and in their first Final since 1997 after reaching the Semifinals for the third time since switching to 8-player in 2012. Their only other loss this fall was to Division 1 semifinalist Bellevue.
“Just being around these kids and the seniors especially, all of them, they’re such great leaders off the field. It’s going to carry over for us,” said Russman, also the school’s athletic director. “They’re really good football players on the field, obviously, but the things they’ve done off the field have just been life-changing for the coaches and kids around it.
“So you hope they continue all those things going into their next sports, and we’ll build on it next year.”
Junior Tanner Lawson threw for 125 yards and a touchdown for St. Patrick, connecting with senior Will Simon on a 19-yard score in the first quarter. Senior Isaiah Smith added a fourth-quarter 1-yard rushing touchdown. Smith had 13 tackles and Simon had 11, while junior linebacker Paul Cook added 10.
The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Crystal Falls Forest Park’s Connor Bortolini charges toward the end zone for one of his four touchdowns Saturday. (Middle) A Trojans defender wraps up Portland St. Patrick’s Ned Smith. (Photos by John Johnson.)
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.)