By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – The challenge came one more time over text Thursday night, from a pair of assistant coaches who had something their players desperately wanted.
Tony Panici and Tyler Aldridge were part of Jackson Lumen Christi’s repeat Division 5 champions in 2003 and 2004, and they had one question for today’s Titans: “Do you have what it takes to join the back-to-back club?”
“That really stuck with us,” Lumen Christi junior linebacker Nick Thomas said. “And I think it gave us that little edge to be able to come out and leave everything on the field, and just join that club.”
Panici and Aldridge – who also were part of the 2005 runner-up team – sent along photos of their championship rings as well. And now the program will need to mint another 80 or so more.
Indeed the Titans won their 10th championship Friday at Ford Field, for the second straight season in Division 6, completing their first repeat since Panici and Aldridge’s sophomore and junior years more than a decade ago. And Lumen Christi did it by holding off arguably the state’s most successful program of the last decade – five-time champion Ithaca – by holding on for a 40-34 win.
The Titans led by 20 midway through the fourth quarter before the Yellowjackets pulled to within six with 2:27 to play. Lumen Christi (12-1) was able to run off those final minutes but needed every last yard – securing the victory by getting two on a 4-and-1 dive by senior Kyle Minder with under a minute to play.
It was a symbolic way to end the final rally. The Yellowjackets (12-1) have won their five titles over the last eight seasons with offenses led by dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks, and made this run led by senior signal-caller Joey Bentley – who ended the fall with 2,144 yards and 31 touchdowns passing and 1,656 yards and 27 scores rushing.
Lumen Christi’s attack is far more old school, a grind-it-out style that this season headlined senior Sebastion Toland with Minder mostly blocking in front of him and behind a powerful offensive line. The Titans didn’t throw a pass during the second half Friday, aside from a two-point conversion try, mostly because they were able to follow up Ithaca’s defensive stops with long runs – Minder ripped off scoring sprints of four, 43 and 63 yards over the final two quarters, and Toland had an 80-yarder to make the lead 19 points just more than a minute into the fourth.
“The offensive line really came off the ball in the second half,” said longtime Lumen Christi coach Herb Brogan, who finished his 38th season running the program. “We felt all year long that offensive line was the strength of our team, and we’ve got some pretty good people to run behind them. I really thought they asserted themselves in the second half and took control of the line of scrimmage.”
The Titans ran for 514 yards on 67 carries, averaging 7.7 yards per attempt. The carries were the second most by one team in an MHSAA championship game.
Toland finished with 244 yards on 33 carries, and Minder had 206 on 23 attempts. Both made the MHSAA record book list for rushing yards in a Final, Toland’s total tying for seventh highest. He had 176 of those yards during the second half. Thomas also scored his team’s first touchdown on a 72-yard reverse.
“They’re a fantastic team offensively, and we knew that. Our challenge was getting off the field,” Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said.
“Our defense is fast, but obviously we’re not very big. They asked me at halftime on TV what (Lumen’s) adjustment was going to be. And I said I expected a lot more power running game from them in the second half, and unfortunately that’s exactly what we got.”
A 51-yard touchdown run by Bentley gave Ithaca a 13-8 lead it carried into halftime. Lumen Christi swung the score 24 points to take a 31-12 advantage into the fourth quarter, but the Yellowjackets remained dangerous. Three of Bentley’s four touchdown passes came over the final 9:36.
He finished 11 of 21 passing for 240 yards and those four scores, and ran for 89 yards and one touchdown. Senior Adam Culp caught five passes for 70 yards and two of those scores.
“I’m glad the clock ran out when it did,” said Brogan, also the fifth winningest coach in MHSAA history with a 343-83 record. “They’re really explosive.”
Senior linebacker Ethan McCormick led Ithaca with 15 tackles, while senior nose guard Nathan Bellinger had 11 and senior linebacker Zach Hessbrook had 10.
The Yellowjackets have won 118 of their last 123 games.
“All I can say is this: When you coach a team, all you ask from them is that they play as hard as they can possibly play,” Terry Hessbrook said. “My kids do that. They do that for me, for my coaching staff.
“I told those guys at halftime, Jackson Lumen Christi has never a team like Ithaca High School, because we have no quitters. These kids, I’m so proud of them for it.”
Minder and Thomas both had six tackles to pace the Titans.
The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lumen Christi’s Sebastion Toland works to break away from a tackler during the Titans’ Division 6 Final win Friday. (Middle) From left: Cameron White, Joe Barrett, Luke Stanton and Hunter Richmond celebrate with the championship trophy.
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.)