By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
A handful of MHSAA football teams always are safe to expect at Ford Field when we finish the annual five-week Finals run into Thanksgiving weekend.
But if the record number of at-large qualifiers – 31 – or the difficulty in picking the best first-round matchups are indications, this weekend could be ripe for plenty of the unexpected.
A total of 38 teams enter the playoffs perfect for the regular season. Ithaca is riding a national-record 51-game winning streak and seeking its fourth straight Division 6 title, while Detroit Cass Tech and Birmingham Brother Rice are going for their third straight each in Divisions 1 and 2, respectively.
How they might fare this time will be easier to predict over the next few weeks. But first things first, and in this case it’s our forecast of the best District openers all over the state this weekend. (Click to see the entire schedule, with dates, times and locations.)
Detroit Catholic Central (7-2) at Northville (8-1)
Arguably the most competitive District in any division also includes Canton and Walled Lake Western, but Northville finished ahead of both to win the Kensington Lakes Activities Association. That doesn’t necessarily make the Mustangs favored. DCC’s only marks against came against reigning Division 2 champion Birmingham Brother Rice, and the Shamrocks have plenty of know-how in the postseason – they’ve finished Division 1 runner-up the last two seasons.
Others that caught my eye: East Kentwood (5-4) at Hudsonville (6-3), Rochester Hills Stoney Creek (6-3) at Rochester Adams (6-3), Belleville (6-3) at Saline (8-1), Canton (8-1) at Walled Lake Western (8-1).
Southfield (7-2) at Birmingham Seaholm (8-1)
This is a meeting of Oakland Activities Association champions, with OAA White winner Southfield hoping to bounce back after last week’s loss to Red champ Clarkston. Blue champ Seaholm also lost in Week 9, to Detroit U-D Jesuit. The Bluejays have been considered MHSAA contenders since the preseason, but the Maples quietly are 16-3 over the last two years and poised to take the next step.
Others that caught my eye: Midland Dow (7-2) at Fenton (8-1), Muskegon Reeths-Puffer (7-2) at Muskegon (8-1), Ypsilanti Lincoln (7-2) at Wyandotte Roosevelt (9-0), Taylor Truman (7-2) at Allen Park (7-2).
Zeeland East (5-4) at Zeeland West (8-1)
It’s fair to assume this won’t be much of a game – East got in with an at-large bid and its worst record since 2009. But there’s too much history to ignore. East did win their first matchup this season, in Week 2, 50-44. And after the Chix cruised to a 9-0 regular season in 2012, West upset them during the District opener. More payback would be the best way to end a four-game losing streak for East – although West hasn’t lost again this fall since that early defeat.
Others that caught my eye: Detroit Denby (7-2) at Detroit Mumford (7-2), Eaton Rapids (5-4) at Charlotte (7-2), Haslett (6-3) at DeWitt (9-0), Riverview (7-2) at Melvindale (7-2).
Battle Creek Pennfield (8-1) at Paw Paw (8-1)
League champions clash in the best Division 4 game of opening night, Paw Paw from the Wolverine B Conference East and Pennfield from the Kalamazoo Valley Association. Pennfield has made the playoffs every season under the current format, which began in 1999 – but enters this run with perhaps its best defense of the bunch after giving up seven or fewer points in six games. Paw Paw is coming off a disappointing loss to Edwardsburg last week, but has been similarly sturdy stopping opponents – Week 9 was the first the Redskins gave up more than 14 points in a game.
Others that caught my eye: Harper Woods Chandler Park (7-2) at Richmond (8-1), Dowagiac (6-3) at Edwardsburg (9-0), Dearborn Heights Robichaud (6-3) at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep (7-2), Yale (6-3) at Saginaw Swan Valley (9-0).
Grand Rapids West Catholic (5-4) at Portland (7-1)
Just as this matchup was tough to predict when these teams met for the Division 5 championship last season, it’s hard to read again this fall. The Raiders rebuilt quickly, with their lone loss two weeks ago to Division 3 contender DeWitt, 13-7. West Catholic made the playoffs with an at-large bid after a one-point win in Week 9 – but has won four straight after opening 0-3.
Others that caught my eye: Kingsford (7-2) at Grayling (8-1), Clare (7-2) at Reed City (9-0), Olivet (8-1) at Hopkins (7-2), River Rouge (8-1) at Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central (8-1).
Reese (8-1) at Montrose (9-0)
Judging by last week’s Genesee Area Conference Blue deciding game, it's fair to guess this might not be much of a contest – Montrose ran past second-place Lake Fenton 37-0 to claim the title outright and also beat Reese 38-8 on opening night. But the Rockets haven’t loss since or scored fewer than 41 points since the first week of October.
Others that caught my eye: Elk Rapids (6-3) at Boyne City (7-2), Marlette (8-1) at Saginaw Nouvel (8-1), Schoolcraft (8-1) at Niles Brandywine (8-1), Manchester (7-2 at Grass Lake (8-1).
Saugatuck (8-1) at Pewamo-Westphalia (8-1)
One of these teams has reached MHSAA semifinals each of the last three seasons and both have advanced to Ford Field once during that time. And each has prepared well this season against similar or bigger foes – Saugatuck’s lone loss was to playoff qualifier Decatur and it beat Division 6 qualifier Hartford. Pewamo-Westphalia beat Division 5 qualifier Lansing Catholic and lost only to Division 8 powerhouse New Lothrop.
Others that caught my eye: Traverse City St. Francis (5-4) at Iron River West Iron County (9-0), Royal Oak Shrine (6-3) at Madison Height Bishop Foley (6-3), St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic (6-2) at Cassopolis (6-3), Whittemore-Prescott (6-3) at Lake City (8-1).
Bessemer (6-3) at Crystal Falls Forest Park (9-0)
We discussed this game at length when these teams met only two weeks ago and Forest Park celebrated avenging a 2012 loss to the Miners to this time clinch the Great Western Conference title outright. A win for Bessemer in this game would be even bigger as the Trojans are attempting to bounce back after failing to reach the District Finals last season for the first time since 2002.
Others that caught my eye: Munising (6-3) at Powers North Central (7-2), Mio (7-2) at Beal City (9-0), Clarkston Everest Collegiate (7-2) at Waterford Our Lady (7-2), Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart (6-3) at Coleman (7-2).
Deckerville (5-4) at Peck (9-0)
Last season’s champion opens these playoffs against one of the favorites according to playoff points average. Deckerville won the MHSAA championship in 2012, the team's first season of 8-player, and won two of its final three regular season games this fall. Peck is one of three 9-0 teams in 8-player and owns the third-highest playoff point average in the division. The Pirates beat Deckerville 56-8 only two weeks ago.
Others that caught my eye: Akron-Fairgrove (7-2) at Owendale-Gagetown (8-1), Casonville Port-Sanilac (6-3) at Portland St. Patrick (7-2), Bellaire (5-4) at Kinde-North Huron (6-3), Engadine (5-4) at Cedarville (8-1).
PHOTO: DeWitt (blue helmets) and Portland met in a Week 7 battle of undefeated teams, and both are considered Ford Field possibilities – DeWitt in Division 3 and Portland in Division 5. (Click to see more from High School Sports Scene.)
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.)