By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
It’s a lot like birds knowing to fly north in the spring.
If you’ve played, coached, parented or followed high school football, you’re likely having a hard time not jumping out of your shoes in anticipation of opening night.
So let’s get right to it; below are some of the most intriguing matchups from this first weekend of the MHSAA football season. More than 250 of the total 310-plus games will be played tonight, with 50 more Friday and a handful Saturday.
Tune in to MHSAA.com’s Score Center all weekend for game times, scores as we get them, standings for those starting league play immediately and all the playoff-point equating that will start to matter to most as we get rolling into the season’s second half. (Records below are from 2013. Games are organized based on the region of Michigan where they'll be played.)
Detroit Catholic Central (11-3) at Muskegon (12-2), Friday
This is set up to be arguably the most high-octane opener in Michigan in some time. DCC is back-to-back-to-back Division 1 runner-up, while Muskegon has finished runner-up in Division 2 the last two seasons. Granted, rosters turn over – but Joeviar Kennedy was Muskegon’s leading receiver in last season’s championship game and Alezay Coleman its leading tackler, and both are back. So are Alex Bock and Jordan Jenkins, two of the most noticeable Shamrocks during their run to Ford Field.
Others that caught my eye: Detroit Country Day (8-4) at Zeeland West (13-1), Grand Rapids South Christian (12-2) at Grand Rapids Christian (8-3) on Friday, Grand Rapids West Catholic (10-4) at Muskegon Oakridge (11-2) on Friday, Grand Rapids Catholic Central (6-4) at East Grand Rapids (5-4).
Lansing Sexton (12-1) vs. Detroit East English (9-3), Saturday at Wayne State
Many of the best from Detroit will be playing at Wayne State University over the next three days (see a few more big-time contests listed below), but this one carries the most intrigue because it features one of the best from the city against a Sexton team that missed making last season’s Division 4 Final by a touchdown. The Big Reds have all of their playmakers and much of their outstanding defense back; East English is keyed by run/pass dynamo Anton Curtis, one of the state’s most exciting quarterbacks.
Others that caught my eye: Macomb Dakota (11-1) at Clarkston (13-1), Pewamo-Westphalia (10-2) at Madison Heights Madison (11-1), Detroit Cass Tech (12-1) vs. Oak Park (6-5) on Friday at Wayne State, Southfield (7-3) vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary's (5-4) on Friday at Wayne State.
Bay and Thumb
Saginaw Swan Valley (11-1) at Saginaw Nouvel (9-2)
A nail-biting 27-20 win for Swan Valley in this opener last season kicked off a run to the Regional Finals and the team’s best season in the last eight. Senior running back Alex Grace returns from the most potent offense in school history and arguably is the most potent runner in MHSAA history with more than 5,000 yards in his career and nearly 3,000 last season alone. Nouvel’s lineup will include more new names – but the Panthers rattled off nine straight wins after the 2013 opening loss and will be prepared to get the streak started a week earlier this time.
Others that caught my eye: Flint Carman-Ainsworth (11-2) at Grand Blanc (7-3), Freeland (6-4) at Lake Fenton (8-3), Montrose (12-1) at Reese (8-2), Mount Pleasant (10-2) at Midland Dow (8-3).
Ithaca (14-0) at Clare (7-3), Friday
The Yellowjackets’ 56-game winning streak stretches over four seasons and is the longest of any in MHSAA history achieved entirely during the playoff era. But Clare – the Jack Pine Conference champion for seven years running – should be Ithaca’s toughest regular-season test of at least the last two or three. Ithaca star quarterback Travis Smith is graduated and gone to Wake Forest University, but younger brother Jake Smith has been similarly anticipated and takes over the offense to start his junior year.
Others that caught my eye: Manchester (7-3) at Clinton (13-1), St. Johns (5-4) at East Lansing (4-5), Jackson Northwest (5-4) at Eaton Rapids (7-5), South Lyon (6-4) at Pinckney (7-4).
Lower Up North
New Lothrop (11-1) at Traverse City St. Francis (5-5), Friday
This is the second chapter of a series started a year ago that allows both to start out against a tough opponent before jumping into league play against more familiar foes. New Lothrop won last season’s matchup and went on to make the Division 8 Semifinals for the second time in three seasons. St. Francis hasn’t had two straight middling seasons like this since 2000-01 (it also finished 4-5 in 2012). But the Gladiators are back in a league for the first time since 2011 and should be able to add on last season’s return to the playoffs.
Others that caught my eye: Midland (10-2) at Traverse City West (5-5), Cadillac (11-1) at Big Rapids (3-6), Kingsley (6-4) at McBain (5-5), Marquette (5-4) at Traverse City Central (5-4).
Munising (6-4) at Iron River West Iron County (10-1), Friday
These two did some celebrating in 2013. West Iron tied its school record for wins, while Munising bounced back from 2-7 in 2012 to make the playoffs for the second time in three seasons – and also for only the second time since 1990. Both should be looking for more this fall; West Iron’s lone loss came in the playoffs to eventual Division 7 champion Ishpeming, while Munising – after falling to West Iron 7-0 in last season’s opener – then lost its next two games by a combined six points before rattling off six straight wins.
Others that caught my eye: Houghton (6-4) at L'Anse (8-3), Ishpeming (14-0) at Iron Mountain (4-5), Petoskey (5-4) at Sault Ste. Marie (7-4) on Friday, Posen (4-6) at Cedarville (8-2).
Southwest and Border
Dowagiac (7-4) at Plainwell (8-2)
Dowagiac was cruising along on a 17-game regular-season winning streak when Plainwell broke it last fall with a 10-0 win on the way to a third straight playoff berth. These two haven’t played in the same division of the Wolverine B since 2011, but the rivalry continues to run hot now that both are division favorites on an annual basis.
Others that caught my eye: Watervliet (10-1) at Gobles (5-4), Parchment (7-4) at Schoolcraft (10-2), Edwardsburg (9-1) at Three Rivers (5-4), Portage Central (12-1) at Mattawan (4-5).
PHOTO: Lansing Sexton, practicing earlier this month, fell just a touchdown shy last season of reaching its first MHSAA Final.
DETROIT – Isaiah Marshall took a second Sunday night to think about the interception he’d just thrown that led to Belleville taking a late lead in the Division 1 Football Final.
But just a second.
When Marshall and his Southfield Arts & Technology teammates took the field down four points with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining at Ford Field, the interception wasn’t on his mind. Neither was the raucous Belleville crowd that had awoken on the home side of the stadium.
He wasn’t thinking about stopping a three-peat or snapping a 38-game Belleville win streak. He wasn’t thinking about the talk he’d heard during the week leading up to the game, that his team was on its way to getting blown out like so many of those previous 38 opponents.
All Marshall was focused on was doing his job.
“As soon as I threw the pick, I knew what I had to do differently,” Marshall said. “I just wasn’t thinking about that last play. As soon as I threw the pick, I just thought about it on the bench, then as soon as I came out, it wasn’t on my mind at all. I just knew I had to go down the field and score.”
Like he had all night, Marshall came through when the Warriors needed him most, leading his team on a 69-yard scoring drive, finishing the final 11 with his legs for the go-ahead score in Southfield A&T’s 36-32 victory against Belleville.
His defense finished the rest, as Dorian Freeman intercepted a pass during the final seconds, sealing the first Finals title for Southfield.
“It’s special,” A&T coach Aaron Marshall said. “It’s special for the community. It’s a long time coming. All week I’ve been getting calls from guys I’ve never met just congratulating the boys on making it. We had never even made it to the championship game, let alone won one. It’s real big for the community. I’m really proud.”
To do it, the Warriors needed to overcome the team that has dominated Division 1 for the past three seasons in Belleville (13-1). The Tigers had won the past two Division 1 Finals, and hadn’t dropped a game since Sept. 10, 2021.
They entered Sunday having outscored opponents this fall by an average of 49-7. They also featured the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2025 in quarterback Bryce Underwood.
But Sunday, none of that mattered to Marshall and the Warriors (13-1). Well, except maybe the last part.
“Just a little bit,” Marshall said when asked if he was out to prove he was the state’s top quarterback. “I do think I’m the best player in the state. Me proving that tonight, and showing what I can do on the big stage shows that, I think.”
He finished the night completing 20 of 31 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns, as well as two interceptions. He also rushed for 134 yards and the go-ahead score, as well as the two-point conversion that put his team up four.
“He came out there and played like I thought he was going to play,” said Belleville star linebacker and running back Jeremiah Beasley, who has committed to Michigan. “He’s a real tough player. Since we were little, he’s always been tough. He came out there and played with all his heart, and they came out on top.”
Underwood certainly had his moments, finishing 11 for 24 for 164 yards and a touchdown to go along with one interception. He also had five rushes for 39 yards.
And A&T was certainly cognizant of what Underwood could do, especially when he got the ball back with 47 seconds to play and a chance to take the lead. But by playing coverage, they didn’t allow the Tigers to push the ball down the field, and eventually pressure from senior defensive tackle Reggie Gardner forced the throw that Freeman intercepted to clinch the game.
“My coaches just told me to spy the quarterback, and whatever he did, I would go,” Freeman said. “Then it was just right in my zone.”
A&T led for most of the game, getting a pair of rushing touchdowns from Mathias Davis during the first half, the second score giving them a 12-7 lead.
After a 31-yard field goal from Belleville’s Brayden Lane made the score 12-10, Marshall engineered an 80-yard drive over the final three minutes of the second quarter to give his team a 10-point lead at the half. He accounted for 79 of the 80 yards with either his legs or his arm, finishing it off with a 13-yard TD pass to Tashi Braceful with 13 seconds remaining in the half. Braceful finished the night with 10 catches for 152 yards.
The Warriors nearly added to that halftime lead, as well, recovering a squib kick at the Belleville 43. Marshall hit Tyjuan Esper for a 38-yard gain on the next play, but he was tackled as the first-half clock expired.
Early in the third quarter, Marshall and the Warriors did stretch their lead when he threw a 19-yard TD pass to Xavi Bowman on a 4th-and-14. DaMario Quarles’ conversion run put them up 28-10 with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.
Of course, Belleville didn’t go away.
The Tigers responded immediately with a 45-yard TD pass from Underwood to Jalen Johnson. And after stopping Marshall on a 4th-and-2 run near midfield, they needed just three plays and 30 seconds to pull within three points of the lead as Beasley scored on a 15-yard run.
On the next A&T possession, Marquis Peoples put Belleville right back in business with an interception that he returned to the 35-yard line. Beasley again cashed in three plays later, with a 22-yard TD run that gave Belleville a 33-27 lead with 4:47 remaining.
Beasley finished the night with 106 yards and the two touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s a senior ball player; he did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Belleville coach Calvin Norman said of Beasley. “He came through in the clutch. When he ran the ball, he did his thing. I have nothing but love for the young man.”
Belleville cornerback Adrian Walker made one of the more remarkable plays of the weekend late in the first quarter, intercepting a Marshall pass deep in A&T territory.
Walker got both hands on the pass, deflecting it up and toward himself as he was spinning up the field. The ball went over his head and Walker reached behind his back to make the catch at the A&T 26.
Four plays later, Belleville was on the board with a 16-yard Colbey Reed touchdown run, and the Tigers led 7-6.
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T quarterback Isaiah Marshall stretches for the game-winning touchdown during Sunday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Warriors ended the night by raising their first championship trophy. (Below) Belleville’s Adrian Walker (2) makes a stunning behind-the-back interception. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)