Lawrence Completes Turnaround with Title

November 21, 2014

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.”

Click for full game statistics.

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.

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.)