By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The MHSAA 8-Player Finals return to where they got their start Saturday, with two champions to be awarded for the first time.
Saturday’s games will be played at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome, which hosted the first MHSAA 8-Player Final in 2011. The 8-Player Playoffs also moved from one to two divisions this year, and Central Lake, Crystal Falls Forest Park and Portland St. Patrick all are seeking their first 8-player championships – while Central Lake will play 2012 champ Deckerville looking to win its first MHSAA title ever in the sport.
Both games will be broadcast live on the FOX Sports Detroit Facebook page and replayed on FOX Sports Detroit’s primary channel on Nov. 21 – Division 1 at 8 p.m. and Division 2 at 11 p.m. Audio of both games will be streamed live on MHSAANetwork.com.
Below is a look at all four finalists. Statistics are through Semifinals unless noted. The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
Record: 12-0, No. 1
Coach: Rob Heeke, seventh season (41-30)
League finish: First in Midwest Central Michigan Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 54-20 over No. 7 Stephenson in the Semifinal, 58-26 (Regional Final) and 44-14 over No. 10 Suttons Bay, 36-14 (Pre-Regional) and 64-38 over No. 15 Mesick, 42-28 over Division 2 No. 2 Onekama.
Players to watch: QB/DB Gavin Mortensen, 5-11/160, sr. (1,062 yards/12 TDs rushing, 680 yards/18 TDs passing); TE/DB Jayce Hoogerhyde, 6-2/145, sr. (223 yards/8 TDs receiving, 49 tackles); RB/DB Skyler Spangler, 6-0/160, jr. (1,652 yards/26 TDs rushing, 272 yards/7 TDs receiving); RB/LB Grant Papineau, 6-3/210, jr. (1,886 yards/25 TDs rushing, 95 tackles).
Outlook: Central Lake has shined in its first season of 8-player football, improving from 2-7 in its final season of 11-player a year ago. Onekama came closest to catching the Trojans, losing by 14 in the game Week 8 that decided the league championship. It’s no secret how Central Lake succeeds; led by three 1,000-yard rushers, the Trojans have run for nearly 4,900 yards at 8.3 per carry. Defensively Papineau is a stopper, but Mortensen and Hoogerhyde are impressive pass defenders with 13 and 15 pass break-ups, respectively. Mortensen also has six interceptions.
Record: 11-1, No. 3
Coach: Bill Brown, 25th season (201-71)
League finish: First in North Central Thumb League Stars
Championship history: 8-Player champion 2012, runner-up 2016.
Best wins: 52-18 over No. 5 Bellevue in the Semifinal, 38-0 over No. 4 Morrice in the Regional Final, 66-28 (Pre-Regional) and 42-8 over No. 12 Mayville, 20-14 over No. 6 Kingston, 52-0 over No. 16 Lawrence.
Players to watch: QB/DB Isaac Keinath, 5-10/155, soph. (660 yards/15 TDs passing); TB/DB Kenton Bowerman, 5-6/150, sr. (971 yards/14 TDs rushing, 8 interceptions); TE/LB/P Wyatt Janowiak, 6-4/255, sr. (288 yards/6 TDs receiving); TB/DB Cruz Ibarra, 5-10/150, jr. (1,430 yards/20 TDs rushing).
Outlook: A new cast of stars has emerged after most of last year’s graduated, and Bowerman stepped up even more last week scoring four touchdowns with leading rusher Ibarra reportedly out with an injury. Deckerville’s only loss this season was by a point to Morrice in Week 6, and was avenged with a 38-point shutout win in the Regional Final. Rival Kingston was the only other opponent to get closer than 20 points to catching the Eagles – despite a regular-season schedule that featured seven playoff teams. Senior Zachary Ostrowski has six catches as the team’s third-leading receiver – and five interceptions as its second-leading pass defender.
CRYSTAL FALLS FOREST PARK
Record: 9-2, No. 6
Coach: Dave Graff, fourth season (35-10)
League finish: Second in Western Eight Conference
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2007), 10 runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 36-34 over No. 1 Pickford in the Semifinal, 62-20 over No. 9 Engadine in the Regional Final, 20-6 (Pre-Regional) and 66-58 over No. 7 Powers North Central, 52-38 over Division 1 No. 13 Ontonagon.
Players to watch: RB/LB Connor Bortolini, 5-8/150, sr. (1,749 yards/20 TDs rushing); QB Tommy Peltoma, 6-1/180, soph. (666 yards/10 TDs passing); RB/DE Peter Ropiak, 6-0/185, sr. (863 yards/12 TDs rushing); RB/DB Calvin Post, 5-8/170, soph. (765 yards/9 TDs rushing, 4 interceptions).
Outlook: Forest Park is one of the most successful programs in MHSAA history, especially among smaller schools – it played in the Division 8 Final six straight seasons from 2004-09. The Trojans moved to 8-player last season and might have been the second or third-best team in Michigan, but shared a league and playoff path with eventual repeat champion Powers North Central and lost to the Jets in the Regional Final. Forest Park opened this season 1-2, but hasn’t been defeated since falling to Division 1 semifinalist Stephenson in Week 3. Bortolini took over this fall as the main ball carrier after the Trojans graduated a 2,400-yard rusher, and he’s carried on the program’s tradition of productive backs.
PORTLAND ST. PATRICK
Record: 11-1, No. 3
Coach: Patrick Russman, 11th season (69-42)
League finish: First in Central Michigan 8-Man Conference
Championship history: 11-Player Class D champion 1992, runner-up 1997 and 1991.
Best wins: 33-14 over No. 5 Kinde-North Huron in the Semifinal, 50-0 over No. 8 Flint International Academy in the Regional Final, 44-6 over No. 13 North Adams-Jerome in the Pre-Regional, 24-8 over No. 10 Marion, 38-22 over Division 1 No. 14 Webberville.
Players to watch: QB/DB Tanner Lawson, 6-3/165, jr. (1,093 yards/20 TDs passing); RB/LB Isaiah Smith, 5-10/190, sr. (359 yards/7 TDs rushing); RB/DL Ned Smith, 5-10/160, soph (779 yards/8 TDs rushing); WR/DB Will Simon, 6-2/170, sr. (395 yards/8TDs receiving). (Statistics through nine games plus one forfeit win.).
Outlook: St. Patrick also was one of the state’s top 11-player small-school programs through the 1990s and has been on the verge of playing for an 8-player championship since switching formats in 2012 – and making the Semifinals that first season. The only blemish on this season’s record was a Week 4 loss to eventual Division 1 semifinalist Bellevue, and no other opponent has gotten closer than 16 points. Junior linebacker Paul Cook is among those pacing a defense that has given up only 12.7 points per game.
On jaw-dropping moments alone, the 2023 Football Finals played over the last two weekends at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome and Ford Field were an unforgettable success.
The two longest active winning streaks in the state were ended by first-time champions. Perhaps the two most recognizable players in Michigan faced off in the season finale. The winningest active coach in state history led his team to a record-tying title, while two more coaches retired with their program’s first. The lone repeat champion needed every last second to score all of its points during the fourth quarter, and four reigning champions saw their repeat or three-peat bids denied.
Consider those an opening kickoff of the final “1st & Goal Review” this season.
MHSAA.com covered all 10 championship games, with quick recaps and links (click on the game scores) to those stories below followed by notations of performances entered into the MHSAA Finals record book and a report on some of the main storylines to emerge as those championships were being decided.
Finals in Review
11-Player Division 1: Southfield Arts & Technology 36, Belleville 32 – Read
The concluding game of this season’s Finals kept everyone on the edge of their seats as A&T not only claimed its first championship but ended reigning champ Belleville’s winning streak at 38 games. This matched up arguably the top quarterbacks in the state, with senior Isaiah Marshall piling up 415 total yards while running for a touchdown and throwing for two more, and Belleville junior Bryce Underwood totaling 203 total yards with a passing score as he attempted to lead the Tigers to a Division 1 title for the third-straight season.
11-Player Division 2: Muskegon 33, Warren De La Salle Collegiate 21 – Read
Muskegon also ended a two-year title streak, as De La Salle was the reigning champion and making its fourth-straight Finals appearance. The Big Reds had finished Division 3 runner-up in 2022, but followed senior quarterback M’Khi Guy, who piled up 374 total yards, ran for a pair of touchdowns and threw for two more.
11-Player Division 3: Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 27, Mason 10 – Read
Both were playing for a first championship, and Forest Hills Central after finishing Division 2 runner-up last season. Several top contributors from the 2022 Rangers team were back, and they limited a Mason offense that had averaged 41 points per game entering the finale. In doing so, FHC sent retiring coach Tim Rogers out with the ultimate win.
11-Player Division 4: Harper Woods 33, Grand Rapids South Christian 27 – Read
Harper Woods was another first-time champion, carrying a 14-0 lead into the second quarter and extending it to as many as 20 before South Christian made a late run behind the record-setting passing of junior quarterback Carson Vis. Harper Woods lost junior lead back Colby Bailey on the second play, but junior Donald Adams stepped in and averaged 10 yards per carry with 174 total.
11-Player Division 5: Grand Rapids Catholic Central 21, Corunna 7 – Read
After missing out on a Ford Field trip last fall, Grand Rapids Catholic Central claimed its third Division 5 title over the last four seasons. Senior quarterback Connor Wolf ran for all three touchdowns and senior running back Kellen Russell-Dixon powered the attack with 133 yards on the ground. Corunna was making its first Finals appearance and gave the Cougars one of their closest games, as all but three wins had come by at least 32 points.
11-Player Division 6: Kingsley 38, Almont 24 – Read
Kingsley claimed its first Finals championship since 2005 led by another record-setting performance. Senior running back Eli Graves tied the Finals record scoring 30 points, the last of his four touchdowns with 2:19 to play and after Almont had pulled within six points of the lead. The Stags controlled the ball for more than 33 minutes – or nearly 70 percent of the game.
11-Player Division 7: Jackson Lumen Christi 34, Menominee 30 – Read
The Titans and longtime coach Herb Brogan tied the MHSAA record with their 13th Finals championship as they scored the game-winning points with 4:04 to play to complete this repeat title run. Junior running back Kadale Williams ran for 276 yards, the fifth-most in Finals history, and scored his first two touchdowns during the second quarter to bring Lumen back from an early 14-0 deficit.
11-Player Division 8: Ubly 21, Ottawa Lake Whiteford 6 – Read
The rematch of the 2022 Division 8 Final – won by Whiteford – this time went Ubly’s way as the Bearcats also ended the Bobcats’ 27-game winning streak in coach Eric Sweeney's final game. Ubly had finished Finals runner-up three times, but concluded its first championship season 14-0. The teams played a scoreless first quarter and Whiteford scored first in the second before the Bearcats stacked three scoring drives of at least 5 minutes, 30 seconds apiece.
8-Player Division 1: Martin 30, Indian River Inland Lakes 26 – Read
Martin scored all 30 of its points during the final 10:17 to repeat as Division 1 champion in unimaginable fashion. Junior quarterback Gavin Meyers’ 21-yard run with five seconds to play put the Clippers ahead for good, and he finished with 358 total yards and also threw a touchdown pass with 33 seconds left to pull Martin within four points of the lead. Inland Lakes was playing its first Final.
8-Player Division 2: Adrian Lenawee Christin 36, Marion 18 – Read
Lenawee Christian clinched its third Finals championship over the last four seasons and after falling short a year ago. Senior quarterback Sam Lutz piled up one more massive statistical performance, throwing for 350 yards and three touchdowns on near-perfect passing, while also running for two scores. Marion was making its first Finals appearance since 1990.
As noted above, Jackson Lumen Christi tied the MHSAA football record by winning its 13th Finals championship. The Titans share that top spot with now-closed Farmington Hills Harrison, and Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Muskegon also moved up that list with their eighth and seventh titles, respectively. Lumen Christi also played in its 16th championship game – third-most and two short of Harrison’s record in that category, while Muskegon played in its 14th, GRCC in its 10th and Grand Rapids South Christian and Warren De La Salle Collegiate both in their ninth Final.
Kingsley senior Eli Graves became one of five to score a record 30 points in an 11-Player Final, doing so with four rushing touchdowns and three 2-point conversions. His four touchdowns tied for fifth-most TDs in a Final and tied for third-most rushing scores. Graves also made the single-game rushing yards list with 210 yards on 33 carries.
Jackson Lumen Christi junior Kadale Williams finished his season with more than 1,900 yards rushing after reaching the single-game Finals rushing list with 276 on 27 carries. Muskegon senior quarterback M’Khi Guy joined Williams and Graves with 215 rushing yards on 25 carries.
Although Harper Woods and Grand Rapids South Christian combined to score just 60 points, they combined for 1,030 total yards, second-most on the list for both teams combined, and South Christian’s 533 total yards alone tied for fourth-most by a single team. Sailors junior quarterback Carson Vis set 11-Player Finals records with 441 passing yards, 30 completions and 513 total yards, and his 44 pass attempts rank second. His senior receiver Jake Vermaas made lists with 10 receptions and 176 yards. Not surprisingly, Vis’ passing yards also make the most by one team in an 11-Player Final.
Southfield A&T senior Isaiah Marshall also made the total yardage list with 415, ranking fourth, and his 281 passing yards and 20 completions also earned entries. Guy made the total yardage list with 374 and also the longest pass list with a 94-yarder to senior Destin Piggee for a score. De La Salle junior Sante Gasperoni made the single-game passing yardage list with 249, and Harper Woods sophomore Nate Rocheleau also made the longest throw list with a 90-yard scoring toss to senior Ramonty Houze. Mason junior Cason Carswell made the attempts and completions lists connecting on 22 of 40 passes.
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central senior Alex Moeller made the single-game field goals list in 11-player with two, from 35 and 27 yards out. Lumen Christi junior Andrew Salazar made the single-game extra points list with five in five tries.
Senior Tashi Braceful was on the other end of some of Marshall’s record work making the 11-player receptions list with 10 catches, for 152 yards.
Conversely, two teams made the list for fewest passing attempts in an 11-player championship game – Almont, which completed one pass on two attempts, and Ubly, which attempted three passes and completed two.
South Christian earned one more entry from the Division 4 game, tying for third-most first downs with 28. Kingsley also made that list, ranking sixth with 27.
Kingsley and Ubly also made the list for fewest punts in an 11-Player Final, as neither punted last weekend.
Marion senior Gavin Prielipp set the 8-Player Finals record for the fastest touchdown scored on an opening kickoff, bringing it back in Division 2 76 yards for a score over the game’s first nine seconds.
Lenawee Christian sophomore Max Stamats made the records for longest field goal also in that game, drilling a 42-yarder.
Cougars senior quarterback Sam Lutz is all over the record book. His 396 total yards in the Division 2 Final rank fifth on that list, while his 350 passing yards are third and .870 percentage throwing the ball (20 for 23) is the first entry in that category. The 350 passing yards also represent the third-most on the team list for 8-Player Finals.
Senior teammate Easton Boggs also made his marks in Division 2, with his 210 receiving yards ranking third and his three touchdown receptions tying for second-most in an 8-Player title game.
Both Division 1 quarterbacks also made the 8-Player Finals list for total offense, Martin junior Gavin Meyers with 358 yards and Inland Lakes junior Aidan Fenstermaker with 323.
Martin as a team ranked second on the 8-player list for most points scored in a quarter, with its 30 during the fourth, and also made the first downs list with 27. Neither Martin nor Inland Lakes punted in that Division 1 game, placing those teams on the lists for fewest punts by one team and fewest between both teams in one game.
Stories Behind the Scores
Legendary Lineup: From a competitiveness point of view, this was as strong a set of Football Finals as we’ve enjoyed in recent memory. Over the last five seasons alone, only 12 championship games – out of 50 – had been decided by seven points or fewer, and only 24 had margins of 14 or fewer points, including only three of 10 games in 2022. But the last two weekends saw four games decided by seven points or fewer, three more by 8-14 points, and the remaining three by 15, 17 and 18.
Some Old, Some New: Of 10 champions this season, four earned football titles for the first time – and only two were repeat winners from 2022. While nine teams played in Finals for at least the second season in a row, five played in a championship game in this sport for the first time. More than 45,000 fans attended the 11-Player Finals, up 2,000 from a year ago and thanks in part to notable crowds from first-time finalists Mason, Corunna and A&T.
Scheduling Notes: Due to Michigan State playing Penn State on Friday at Ford Field, the MHSAA 11-Player Finals were moved to Saturday and Sunday, and Sunday’s games also started at 9:30 a.m. instead of the traditional 10 kickoff time. The schedule adjustment also allowed for experimentation with the order of games, with the largest schools each day – Division 2 on Saturday and Division 1 on Sunday – moved to the final time slots those evenings.
Dazzling Finishes: The Division 1 games – both in 11-player and 8-player – provided last-minute game-winning touchdowns to cap storybook seasons. In 11-player, Isaiah Marshall’s 11-yard scoring run with 47 seconds to play pushed Southfield Arts & Technology past Belleville 36-32 after the Tigers previously had come back from an 18-point deficit. In 8-Player Division 1, Martin scored all of its 30 points during the fourth quarter – the last 16 over the final 33 seconds – and with quarterback Gavin Meyers scrambling 21 yards for the winning score with five seconds to play. The Martin win kicked off the championship weekends, while the Southfield A&T victory ended the season.
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PHOTOS (Top) Our collage includes photos from all 10 MHSAA Football Finals. (2) Muskegon’s Da'Carion Taylor holds up the ball after his touchdown catch during the 11-Player Division 2 game. (3) Inland Lakes’ Jacob Willey (4) and Avery Enos celebrate Willey’s second touchdown of the 8-Player Division 1 Final. (4) Southfield A&T’s DeMario Quarles enjoys a moment after his team’s 11-Player Division 1 victory. (11-Player Finals photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos. 8-Player Finals photos by Cara Kamps.)