Lansing Catholic Comes Back to Claim D5
November 30, 2019
By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Zach Gillespie was just part of what was out of rhythm for Lansing Catholic during the first half of Saturday’s Division 5 Final against Almont.
The senior quarterback headed into the break 2-of-6 passing for 16 yards with an interception, and had eight carries for nine yards – not at all characteristic for a standout who had thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and run for more than 550 through his first 13 games this season.
But somehow, the Cougars and Raiders were tied. And that meant Lansing Catholic was in position to win.
Gillespie stormed back with a big second half, the offense meeting halfway a defense that had kept the Cougars in the game, and the lessons of comebacks earlier this season made the difference in Lansing Catholic finishing a 31-17 win over Almont to earn its first Finals championship since 1985.
“I probably shouldn’t say that with these guys here, but I don’t think this team is the most talented team from top to bottom that we’ve ever had,” said Cougars coach Jim Ahern, who also brought Lansing Catholic to Ford Field in 2011 and 2014. “But I’ll tell ya, I don’t think I’ve had a team that has more chemistry and more heart than this group of kids did. We’ve been behind in a lot of games this year and they never quit, and I think that’s why.”
They call it a “21-7 mentality” and it was born from a loss this season, the sixth-straight over four seasons to rival Portland.
The Cougars (13-1) trailed in that Week 5 matchup 21-7 at halftime, and lightning forced the second half to be played the next day. Lansing Catholic came back to make the final score 21-20 – but even in defeat, the message hit home that the team can change the course of a game over the final two quarters. (And Lansing Catholic went on to defeat Portland 21-0 in the District Final.)
“We write it on the board at halftime – 21-7 mentality in the second half – and I think that was a big turning point coming out firing that game,” Cougars senior linebacker Sam Edwards said. “We’ve just carried that with us since, and it’s made us better.”
This time, as in many before, Gillespie led the way. He found his footing and touch after the break, completing 9-of-17 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns over the final two quarters and running for two scores as well.
Almont carried a 17-7 lead into the final two minutes of the third quarter. But Lansing Catholic scored 24 unanswered points to finish the game, with Gillespie shutting the door with a four-yard scoring run with 1:39 to play.
That followed touchdown passes of seven yards to senior Vince Salquist and 23 to senior Mitch Raphael, a soccer player last year who showed some delicate footwork getting one down before exiting the side of the end zone. Raphael’s score put the Cougars ahead 24-17 with 3:41 to play.
“We just knew. We knew we could come out and score with anyone,” Gillespie said. “We knew we had a couple three-and-outs, and it wasn’t going our way. We kinda just had all gas, no brakes, and weren’t just satisfied with going up seven there. We wanted to score again.
“I don’t think I could’ve had a worse first half. Especially in the state championship game, I went in at halftime and I was pretty down on myself. I (restored) the confidence in myself that I can make the throws, and I’ve got great playmakers that are going to catch it. Our line blocked pretty good in the second half … and everyone just got open for me and I was able to deliver.”
Almont (13-1) was making its first trip to the Finals for football, concluding an impressive run that saw it win on the road three of the first four weeks of the playoffs.
But the first half Saturday was frustrating, as the Raiders ended two drives throwing interceptions and a third giving up a fumble. The only first-half possession that didn’t end in a turnover finished with a touchdown.
Almont then scored on a field goal and touchdown on the first two possessions of the second half. But the Raiders threw another interception and fumbled the ball away again on the next two, allowing Lansing Catholic opportunities to catch up.
Senior Jack Paupert and junior Michael Lulgjuraj scored those Almont touchdowns, and Paupert ran 18 times for a team-high 78 yards. Senior Colby Schapman caught five passes for 80 yards. Senior Ryan Miller booted a 31-yard field goal to round out the team’s scoring.
Senior linebacker Jacob Hausmann with seven tackles led a defense that again this season measured up with the state’s best. The Raiders gave up just 11.6 points per game, holding teams below 15 per game for the sixth time in seven seasons. Lansing Catholic’s 31 points were the most surrendered by the Raiders since the 2017 playoffs.
“The backbone of our team is our defense. Coach (Ritchie) Feys does an excellent job preparing these guys, and these guys execut(e) the game plan,” Almont coach James Leusby said. “When we came out (after halftime) we were 0-0 ballgame, and we were going after it.”
Sophomore Alex Watters caught five passes for 107 yards for Lansing Catholic as Gillespie finished with 187 total through the air. Edwards had 19 tackles, recovered both fumbles and snagged an interception, and senior Daniel Magaway had 10 tackles as the Cougars locked down an offense that averaged 39.5 points this fall. Ahern directed the credit to assistants Kelly Carrier, Mike Doran and Pat Barner, who handle all of the defensive play-calling and made adjustments at halftime to slow down Almont’s outside running attack.
Ahern, meanwhile, claimed his first championship five decades after he began his head coaching career at Gobles in 1969. He spent more than three decades at Ithaca and came back from Florida in 2009 to take over at Lansing Catholic – going over 300 career wins this season and moving up to 11th on the in-state career list with a 301-152-6 record while coaching at those three Michigan high schools.
“When you get here and you don’t win, you don’t realize until I think months after that you had a great season. This is definitely a different feeling,” Ahern said.
“The message all week was let’s get him to 301,” Edwards said. “It means the world to me to be able to put on the jersey and play for this guy. It’s kinda bittersweet that I won’t get to do it again, but to end it on a high – there’s no one that deserves this more than this guy right here.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Lansing Catholic quarterback Zach Gillespie follows his blockers during Saturday’s Division 5 Final. (Middle) Mitch Raphael (7) helps bring down Almont’s Michael Lulgjuraj.
Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com 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:
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.)