By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – When Ishpeming coach Jeff Olson watched film this week of Saturday opponent Detroit Loyola, he saw a team that continuously “demoralized” its opponents.
By midway through the second quarter of the MHSAA Division 7 Final, his players understood what he meant.
Senior Brad Wootke, easily the Hematites’ biggest player, joked after about getting knocked around by the multiple more sizable Bulldogs across the line. Junior quarterback Alex Briones rolled his eyes into his head describing a blast he withstood.
But it would’ve taken more than that to knock Ishpeming off its path to an MHSAA football title. As Olson also explained, “They guys made their own way, and they made it all year.”
The Hematites doled out plenty of physicality and turned away a few late rushes to hang on to a 20-14 Division 7 championship win at Ford Field.
“First of all, we’re a hard-nosed football team. We don’t take anyone prisoners. We’re going to fight all we can,” Briones said. “They’re big, but we just didn’t let them dominate us.”
The championship was Ishpeming’s first since 1979, and came two seasons after the team fell 28-26 to Hudson in a 2010 Final. The Hematites finished this fall 13-1.
Loyola, 13-0 entering the day, was playing in its first MHSAA championship game and could be back again soon – the Bulldogs had only five seniors this fall.
But Loyola also was ranked No. 1 heading into these playoffs, featured the second-leading scorer in MHSAA single-season history in senior running back Keymonn’e Gabriel, and had eight players – to Ishepming’s one – weighing in between 250 and 290 pounds.
The No. 4-ranked Hematites were underdogs. And they knew it. But they obviously didn't believe it.
“Our coach he said it best before the game when we were at our school. He said the game’s going to be won or lost on the first smack, the first hit,” Gabriel said. “I guess we were just on the receiving end. We didn't come out strong like we were supposed to, and we just came up a little bit short.”
Although Loyola led at halftime, that advantage was slim – only 8-6. The Bulldogs had outgained the Hematites, but only 153-80. Seven minutes into the second half, Ishpeming appeared to change the tide with senior Eric Kostreva’s second touchdown run. But Loyola turned it back when Gabriel scored on a 20-yard run on the final play of the third quarter to make the score 14-12.
In the end, it would come down to a few close plays, all coming on fourth down. Ishpeming made good on both of its fourth-down attempts. Loyola was successful on four of five – but that one miss might have eventually been the decider.
Loyola faced fourth-and-seven with 7:47 to play and trailing 20-14, when Gabriel ran on a punt fake for 38 yards to Ishpeming’s 17-yard line. But four plays later, on fourth-and-one, Gabriel was hung up for no gain by the waiting Briones, who had senior R.J. Poirier right behind providing support.
Then it was Ishpeming’s turn to convert instead. Its first fourth-down make set up a third-quarter touchdown. That wasn't the case this time. But making good on a fourth-and-one try from its own 18 – after twice trying to draw Loyola off-side and calling two timeouts – allowed the Hematites to drain two more minutes off the clock before junior Tyler Windahl’s 44-yard punt pinned the Bulldogs on their 28 with 1:14 to play.
Loyola made one more first down, but ended the game on its 41-yard line.
“I’m surprised I didn't want to go for it right off the bat. When we called timeout, I said we’re going to punt it, and I think half of you guys (his players) said, ‘Nope, we’re going for it,’” Olson said. “And when I thought about it, we always go for it on fourth and one. But if somebody offers me fourth and three inches for a state championship, I’m going for it.
“We weren't going to punt it away and hope it happened. We wanted to make it happen.”
Gabriel finished with 21 carries for 129 yards and a touchdown rushing, and also caught four passes for 52 yards and a score. That gave him 326 points this season – second-most in MHSAA history, and final unofficial rushing numbers of 145 carries, 2,516 yards and 36 scores. The yards rank 20th in MHSAA history for one season, and the rushing touchdowns are 11th.
He did so running in part behind junior tackles Malik McDowell (6-foot-7, 290 pounds) and Kajohn Armstrong (6-5, 275), and Loyola certainly felt the impact Saturday when Armstrong had to leave the game early with an injury.
“Our seniors are the reason we’re here; they were our leaders although there were only five of them. But now it’s time for the other group to step up,” Loyola coach John Callahan said. “We had a lot of sophomores playing, a lot of freshman playing. I’m pretty sure I know what we did and what we didn't do, and we've got all offseason to work on and correct, and next season, to start over again.”
Kostreva ran 20 times for 182 yards and all three Ishpeming touchdowns, and also had 16 tackles. He’s one of 12 seniors who helped guide the program through a tough start to the fall after Olson’s son, Daniel, was found after committing suicide in July.
Jeff Olson said after this game wasn't about him, but Briones was quick to point out that the players certainly wanted to win in part for their coach and the memory of their former teammate.
“I didn't know how this year would go. But I know once I got on the football field, it was a relief for me,” Olson said. “It was where I really felt comfortable. It’s because of these guys right here. They made it comfortable for me.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ishpeming running back Eric Kostreva (11) races down the sideline as Detroit Loyola's Anthony Frierson gives chase Saturday. (Middle) The Hematites celebrate their first MHSAA championship since 1979. (Click for more from Terry McNamara Photography.)
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.)