Ithaca Focuses Again on Number 1

August 17, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

ITHACA – Leaders talked Thursday about getting back to Ford Field after finishing 2014 with a loss.

The coach discussed the value of experience and how seniors are key to a successful season.

Players started their first workout on their home practice field by stretching and working on special teams. When they were thirsty, they drank water. They wore helmets, shoulder pads, shorts and shoes.

Ithaca might’ve had the nation’s longest active 11-player football winning streak snapped last season – but during this afternoon, nothing seemed much different than for about 600 other teams in Michigan looking to begin this fall 1-0.

“That’s the first question everybody asked me last season. But it’s over now, and we’ve just got to focus on this season,” said senior Jake Smith, the returning quarterback, of the five-season run. “There’s not as much pressure anymore. We don’t have to carry on a streak. But we want to start a new one.”

And that's where this practice and any by the Yellowjackets likely will differ from most in Michigan this fall.

The practice field was filled with veterans, with nine starters back on offense and 13 who started at least one game on defense during last season's run to the Division 6 championship game, which ended in a 22-12 streak-breaking loss to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central. 

Those are some key numbers to immediately digest, but numbers became part of the swirl around Ithaca’s incredible run of the last five seasons.

First up was 44 – the number of games Ithaca won in a row to pass Cheboygan for the MHSAA’s longest streak that came all during the playoff era, which began in 1975.

Then came 57 – the number of games Ithaca had won consecutively when it took over sole possession as the nation’s most consistent winner thanks to a loss by Regina High School in Iowa City, Iowa, last August.

There was 72 – the number of consecutive wins by Hudson from Sept. 1968-Nov. 1975 that remains the MHSAA record, although, it is noted, that streak included only one playoff win before Hudson fell in the inaugural Class C Final to see its run end.

Finally, the end came at 69 – the number of games Ithaca won from opening night in 2010 until falling in to Monroe St. Mary on Nov. 28.

And now there’s only 1 – the number of wins in a row Ithaca will play for when it opens against Clare on Aug. 28, and the ranking in its division the Yellowjackets will strive for again after winning four of the last five Division 6 titles.

“I hate to think of it as a start over,” Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said as his team started its first practice at home after three days of camp in Hawks, near Rogers City. “There’s lots of experience out here, and it’s been a nice few days. I haven’t had to raise my voice because they know what the goal is, and they know what the process is that you’ve got to go through to get to it. And it’s quite a climb – you don’t get to start where you finish (the year before).

“(But) you finish on such a high, even if you lose.”

Rewind to last season’s loss, if only for a minute.

Monroe St. Mary relied in part on a senior quarterback in Bryce Windham and a 1,000-yard rusher in senior running back John Lako. Ithaca, meanwhile, returned to Ford Field with only six seniors and only a few who played significant roles – and really, were a surprise after conquering a road that included No. 8 Millington, No. 10 Madison Heights Madison and No. 5 Boyne City, the final two wins decided by senior-like clutch play in the fourth quarter.

Ithaca and Monroe St. Mary literally traded scores in the Final, although Ithaca never led. Smith ran for a 3-yard score with 33 seconds left in the third quarter to pull the Yellowjackets to within three points at 15-12. But neither team scored again until St. Mary added a touchdown with 1:41 to play.

And yet, the welcome at home that night had Ithaca feeling like it was a champion still.

“We had more people show up when we returned than maybe when we won the third or fourth (title),” said Hessbrook, who starred as a running back at Ithaca from 1982-84 and took over as head coach before the 2004 season. “The community kind’ve stood in unison and said, ‘That was pretty cool that we just got to go on that ride.’

“I get chills just talking about it.”

There could be more to come.

Smith, who has had college football conversations with Harvard and Yale among others, threw for 2,134 yards and 27 touchdowns last season and ran for 1,391 more yards and 20 scores. His top three receivers last season all were juniors; Spence DeMull is recovering from an injury, but caught 66 passes for 1,193 yards and 16 TDs. Senior Jace Demenov, the team’s leading tackler the last two seasons, is moving from offensive line to a tight end/receiver combo and is among a few who should emerge as reliable targets. Nose tackle Jonah Loomis was the team’s second-leading tackler last season and also is a senior this fall.

Eight of this season’s seniors were on the varsity as sophomores, so they’ve played 28 games – including 10 during the playoffs. Still, Ithaca is coming off a loss … not something it’s been used to of late.

“(Local people) ask who is coming back, and we just say everybody,” Demenov said. “In years past, people knew who was coming back and what it was going to be like. People are asking this year who do we have, are we going to be good.

“It’s a game that we lost, an important game for us. We all worked for it, and to have an ending like that really bugged us. It was fun saying we had the longest streak in the nation, but the pressure’s not off. We’re coming back stronger than ever.”

As one might expect, history says Ithaca should remain elite. Hudson went 9-0 in 1976 coming off its streak-ending loss in the 1975 Final. Cheboygan won 10 of its next 11 starting at the end of 1982 and finished 1983 at 8-1. Farmington Hills Harrison came off the end of its 36-game winning streak from 1999-2002 by finishing the latter 8-3 and going 11-2 in 2003, and Fowler won the 1998 Class D title with a 10-3 record after seeing its 33-game win streak end in a 1997 Regional Final.

Still, there isn’t a script Hessbrook can refer to in this situation since so few have been in such a spot. He said it’s up to these seniors to leave their mark – be it playing 10 games, or 12, or getting all the way back to Ford Field.

Winning 14 in a row wouldn’t be 70 or 71 – but more than good enough, even if it comes with fewer people watching Ithaca’s every move.

“I think they should follow us,” Smith said. “We slipped up one game. We’re still a great team that’s going to go out there and put on a show for the fans.

“Anybody that follows us this year is not going to be disappointed.”

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca players work on a blocking drill during Thursday's practice. (Middle) Coach Terry Hessbrook, left, explains how to field a kick to one of his special teamers. (Below) Jake Smith, carrying the ball, follows blocker Grant Gimmey.

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)