By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
GREENVILLE – Derek Gribler was a sophomore at the Lawrence school board meeting two years ago when it was decided the Tigers would try 8-player football the following fall.
Although the team had finished a combined 1-17 the previous two seasons, playing mostly bigger schools with multiple freshmen trying to match much larger seniors, there was skepticism. Some simply didn’t like the move.
Friday night, it was hard to imagine a better fit.
Counting on a variety of skill players and a speedy defense necessary to succeed in the 8-player game, Lawrence finished its second season after the switch as an MHSAA champion with a 56-12 win over Cedarville at Legacy Field.
Often, successful groups growing up anticipate success at the varsity level. But the Tigers didn’t give championships a thought during their struggles only a few seasons ago.
“Not a single second. Not in any of those practices, not in any of those games,” said Lawrence senior linebacker Jimmy Phelps, like Gribler a four-year varsity player. “Being a 14-year-old kid in a conference where you’d get 60 kids going out for a team; you’re a 14-year-old boy going against 18-year-old men for four quarters every day.
“Football always was my favorite sport, (but) there’s a time you see your rivals in conference and you’re going up against 6-(foot)-2, 200-pound kids and you’re 14-years old and 5-2, 135 pounds. It’s not really fun when those guys hit your guts.”
Moving to 8-player appears to have swung the advantage far into Lawrence’s favor.
The Tigers finished this fall 12-0 and 21-3 over their two seasons of 8-player football, becoming the first team in MHSAA history to win both 8 and 11-player football titles. Lawrence won the Class DD 11-player championship in 1997, but before 2013 hadn’t had a winning season since 2007.
Gribler, a running back before this fall, became over the last four months perhaps the most impressive standout in the MHSAA’s brief history of the 8-player format.
He followed up last week’s six touchdown passes and three touchdown runs against reigning champion Peck with three rushing and two passing scores against the Trojans. Gribler ran for 103 yards on just 12 carries and completed 11 of 14 pass attempts for 256 yards Friday, and for the season he threw for 2,599 yards and 42 touchdowns and ran for 1,704 yards and 24 scores.
With only three seasons against which to compare, Lawrence setting three MHSAA 8-Player Final offensive records might not seem as impressive. But they’re marks that could stand for a while – 23 first downs, 341 yards rushing and 597 total yards.
Lawrence coach Cody Caswell came into 8-player with a spread offense background and has built a network of 8-player coaches including contacts in Oklahoma and Idaho. He tailored the offense this year to allow Gribler to read and make decisions on the fly on nearly every play.
Gribler ran four yards for the team’s first score just 1:06 into the game, and added two more scoring runs and a 27-yard touchdown pass to senior Mike Cammire as the Tigers built a 28-6 lead by the end of the first quarter. Cammire finished with six catches for 110 yards and junior running back Hunter Coombs helped set the tone with 127 yards and two touchdowns on only six rushes.
Meanwhile, the Lawrence defense spent much of the night chasing Cedarville senior quarterback Joey Duncan and forcing him to throw on the run. Cedarville gained only 276 yards and turned the ball over three times. Its 12 points were a season low.
The Tigers finished with a school-record five shutouts under the direction of coordinator Aaron Amthor, and forced 39 turnovers while giving the ball away only five times.
“We believed we had the best defense in the state along with the best offense in the state. We didn’t go in like, ‘I wonder how this is going to go.‘ We thought we should stop them,” Caswell said. “Our motto all year was ‘fast and physical,’ and that’s what they do”
Cedarville had made the 11-player playoffs seven straight seasons before moving to 8-player in 2011. But the Trojans had fallen short of high playoff expectations the last three years, finishing all three with losses to teams they had beaten during the regular season.
Friday’s Final appearance was the program’s first, and its 11 wins this fall a team record.
Duncan threw for 125 yards and a touchdown and ran for 58 more yards. Senior running back Mike Bailey ran for 84, and senior receiver Brad Causley caught seven passes for 95 yards. Senior Blake Melvin ran for a score, and junior Mike Haske caught the other.
Duncan and Causley also played significant roles on the basketball team’s run to the Class D Semifinals in March, and that experience paid off the last four weeks.
“It definitely helped our mindset. We’re used to winning, used to tournament time, and that helped us compose ourselves in big games,” Duncan said. “This year, we knew we had something special. We had a feeling that we were not going to lose, not give up. It definitely was a good mountain to overcome, and hopefully for years to come they can keep the winning going.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Lawrence’s Derek Gribler drags a Cedarville defensive player into the end zone on one of his three scoring runs. (Middle) Cedarville’s Brad Causley works to get past Tigers defenders. (Below) Lawrence coach Cody Caswell talks with his team after Friday’s championship victory.
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.)