Leader Re-Energizes Past Power Stevenson

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

November 22, 2019

Regardless of how one looks at it, Justin Newcomb is the right person for the right job at the right time.

Newcomb, 33, is one of the youngest head football coaches in the Detroit area, and he’s causing a stir. He’s in his second season at Sterling Heights Stevenson and the person most responsible for the Titans playing in an MHSAA Division 1 Semifinal on Saturday for the first time in a decade.

Stevenson (8-4), as an additional playoff qualifier, has played the underdog role to a T throughout the playoffs. There’s an advantage to that role, and Stevenson will take it up again when it takes on Davison (10-2) at Troy Athens at 1 p.m.

Once a football power, Stevenson fell back to the middle of the pack in the highly competitive Macomb Area Conference Red from 2010-18. Four times previously the program had reached an MHSAA Final, the last in 2009 when the Titans lost to Detroit Catholic Central, 31-21, in the Division 1 title game.

That was Hall of Fame coach Rick Bye’s 35th and final season at Stevenson. Since then, the Titans qualified for the playoffs three times and didn’t win a playoff game. That is, until this season.

“You’ve got goals,” Newcomb said. “You set goals at the start (of the season), and you just want to get the most out of (your) team.”

When Newcomb took over, the program had won just three games over the previous two seasons. The Titans were 4-5 overall in 2018, and just 1-4 in the MAC Red, which was won by eventual Division 1 champion Clinton Township Chippewa Valley. The average margin of defeat in those four league losses was 25.5 points.

“We took our lumps (in the MAC Red),” Newcomb said. “The challenge was getting kids to come out. When we first came in there was some interest lost. We had to beg some to come out. Now that we’re winning, kids are saying they want to come out.”

Despite his young age, Newcomb has coached high school football for 14 seasons. He started as an assistant under Mike Powell at Warren Cousino in 2006 when Newcomb was a student at Wayne State University. For 10 seasons he was the head varsity baseball coach at Cousino, but he gave that up when he took over for Powell as Cousino’s head football coach in 2017.  

Though Newcomb finds himself in the right position at Stevenson, don’t view Stevenson’s sudden success as luck. Newcomb possesses an insatiable appetite for knowledge. If there’s a clinic to attend, you’ll likely find Newcomb there. And his ego doesn’t prevent him from talking to more experienced coaches to pry loose valuable information. Most often you’ll find Bye on the Stevenson sideline, not as an assistant but someone there whom Newcomb can confide in.

“Justin is positive and energetic,” Bye said. “He’s definitely not a guy who thinks he knows it all. He’s bought into everything, the Stevenson history, everything. He’s up on technology, much more so than I ever was. And he doesn’t let little things bother him. His practices have a tempo, and there’s little time wasted.”

Not lost in Newcomb’s system is his military background. After graduating from Wayne State with a teaching degree, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve in 2011. He continues to serve today in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR).

“It has a lot to do with the way we coach,” Newcomb said of his military experience. “(Coaching) is a lot more than just what goes on on the field. There’s (teaching) leadership roles and being responsible. In our culture, it’s all about winning. It’s all about playing time. The kids get caught up in that.

“Their attitudes have changed. We had to address the group as a whole. We had guys that first year that said that they play linebacker, and that’s it. Others came in saying they just play one way. That’s not how we do it. You’re here to help the team. Now the kids are doing whatever we need them to.”

A prime example is junior Giovanni El-Hadi. A college prospect (committed to University of Michigan), El-Hadi had been told, by some outside of the program, that he was an offensive lineman and wouldn’t play defense. This season El-Hadi is starting on defense for the first time and said earlier this fall that his time spent on the defensive side has helped improve his speed.

Another two-way starter on the line is senior Sal Madonna. Madonna is a two-year starter, and he and his brother, sophomore Biagio Madonna, are the sons of assistant coach Carmine Madonna – who played for Bye during the late 1990s.

“For me, I’ve been a part of Stevenson football for a long time,” Sal Madonna said. “Last year’s team wasn’t as connected as much. This year we bonded together. We trusted Coach Newcomb’s style. Even last year as juniors (we knew) to be successful, we had to buy in. We didn’t have the same mindset last year. We’re playing with a lot more confidence now.

“This means a lot to me. I remember being in the stands (at Troy Athens) when Jason Fracassa threw a touchdown pass in the (2009) Semifinals. Just like this team, that team never gave up.”

This team rebounded from a 2-3 start with a 13-7 comeback victory over Utica in Week 6. That game, more than others, was the turning point of the Titans’ season. Newcomb made a switch at quarterback, moving Biagio Madonna from linebacker and switching fellow sophomore Jordan Ramsey from quarterback to slot receiver and running back. With Ramsey, Newcomb was running a zone read offense. With Madonna, Stevenson is running an option attack.

In the victory over Utica, Stevenson used a trick play to score the winning touchdown. Last week in the 9-7 Regional Final victory over Detroit Cass Tech, the Titans had a goal-line stand in the first half and scored the winning touchdown on a double pass. Madonna threw to Dylan Kleinedler, who threw to Ramsey for a touchdown early in the second half. A Ramsey interception ended the game with 14 seconds left.

The previous week against Macomb Dakota, Newcomb decided not to go for the tying field goal from 40 yards out, and instead called on Madonna to throw the winning touchdown pass to Ramsey with a minute to play. Stevenson won 38-35 against a team it had lost to, 40-14, during the regular season and before Newcomb had made the quarterback switch.

“We’ve been fortunate the last few weeks with trick plays,” Newcomb said. “(But) getting here is a testament on just how hard these kids have worked.”

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Sterling Heights Stevenson players hoist their Division 1 Regional championship trophy after defeating Detroit Cass Tech last week. (Middle) Jordan Ramsey (5) breaks into the open against the Technicians. (Photos courtesy of the Stevenson football program.)

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:

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.)