MARQUETTE --- Adrian Lenawee Christian won MHSAA Finals titles in its first two seasons of 8-player football.
But last year the Cougars didn’t, falling to eventual Division 1 champion Martin in a Regional Final.
“I’m not joking when I say the Monday after we got beat by Martin, they were all in the weight room,” Lenawee Christian coach Bill Wilharms said.
Since then, they’ve been doing early Saturday morning workouts, they’ve gone to powerlifting meets with him, anything to get better, anything to get back to where they want to be – lifting the championship trophy.
The Cougars did that Saturday afternoon after they defeated Marion 36-18 in the Division 2 Final at the Superior Dome in Marquette.
“That’s why we’ve been doing it,” said senior quarterback Sam Lutz, who was 20 of 23 for 350 yards through the air while accounting for all five touchdowns (two rushing, three passing). “It’s the kind of legacy we’ve been trying to make. You put in the work, you get the results.”
They certainly get the results. The Cougars went undefeated like they did in their first two championship runs, and this 18-point win was their closest game of the season.
Lutz and the rest of the seniors had one last chance to win a title they could call their own. He said that early exit last fall was the motivation to get here, and this win proved to be a pretty good feeling.
“I played a little bit as a sophomore, but it’s certainly different to be one of the main leaders of this team and it feels really great,” Lutz said.
“Martin was the better team last year; they took it to us in that Regional,” Wilharms said. “This group of seniors, they wanted one of their own, they wanted their own legacy.”
He said it was awesome to see their hard work pay off.
“What high school kid wants to get up at 6 o’clock on Saturday morning?” Wilharms said. “They come in, they believe in it. It’s nice. And we have fun. The coaches lift and stuff, so it’s just a blast. And then we walk away sore and they laugh at us, and that’s a good thing, too.”
Marion had a long road to Marquette as well.
While their five-hour drive was actually about two hours shorter than Lenawee Christian’s, the Eagles had been trying for several years to get here.
They finally got to the Superior Dome after always running into juggernaut Powers North Central. The Jets won the three previous Division 2 titles after defeating Marion in a Semifinal every time.
“It was the final step. We finally made it here,” Marion coach Chad Grundy said. “We came up a little bit short, but they’re a real good team and we just made a couple mistakes. They’re too good for us to make those mistakes.”
The game started out in Marion’s favor.
Senior Gavin Prielipp returned the opening kickoff 76 yards for a 6-0 lead just nine seconds in.
“Most people don’t kick to us,” Grundy said. “He ran one back last week, too. It’s been a great season, and we’re just proud of our kids.”
Wilharms expected a good effort from Marion, and saw it right away.
“We knew they were a heck of a football team – you don't get to 12-0 and the state championship (otherwise), so we knew there were gonna be some bumps and stuff along the way,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was going to be that early.”
Lenawee Christian scored 36 straight points after that.
The Cougars led just 1 minute, 41 seconds later when Lutz found senior tight end Easton Boggs for a 15-yard touchdown. The Eli Brainard extra point made it 7-6.
Lutz ran for touchdowns of seven and one yard as Lenawee Christian expanded its lead to 20-6 early in the second quarter. He found Boggs again for a 12-yard TD midway through the second quarter, and a 42-yard field goal by Max Stamats with 20 seconds left in the half made it 29-6.
Lutz hit Boggs for the third and final time with six seconds left in the third quarter. The Brainard extra point made it 36-6. In all, Boggs caught nine passes for 210 yards.
“Easton’s been a force for us through seventh and eighth grade, and Sammy came as a ninth grader,” Wilharms said. “I hope (Lutz) is in the consideration for the 8-player Player of the Year, because I think he’s definitely deserving of it.”
Marion scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, a 30-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Collin McCrimmon to junior James Williams and a three-yard run by junior Cole Meyer.
Lenawee Christian outgained Marion 405-274 and was just the second team to score more than 14 points against the Eagles this year.
“Just the speed,” Grundy said of what makes the Cougars so tough. “They’ve got so much speed everywhere. They’re very well-coached. We struggled with that when they spread it out, trying to defend the quarterback and defend all their receivers.”
It was six years ago when Wilharms bought into the type of workouts that promoted the kind of speed that keeps his team coming to the Upper Peninsula.
On the field, the Cougars enjoy playing offense, which is easy to understand with the way they can score. But Wilharms thought the defense played even better Saturday, suffocating a Marion offense that came in averaging 55 points per game.
“They just were awesome,” he said.
PHOTOS (Top) Lenawee Christian’s Easton Boggs (10) and Sam Lutz celebrate a touchdown Saturday at the Superior Dome. (Middle) The Cougars’ Jesse Miller (2) forces Marion’s Collin McCrimmon out of bounds. (Below) Lutz finds a receiver as Marion’s James Williams applies pressure. (Click for more photos by Cara Kamps.)
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.)