Ryan Alexander was in a familiar place this past Thursday.
The Marine City senior running back was at East China Stadium, the junior varsity team on the field in front of him playing against Warren Woods-Tower and a group of junior program football players behind him, preparing to get onto the big field and play at halftime.
He and his Mariners teammates were coming off a win against archrival St. Clair, and had just finished their last practice in preparation for a Week 7 game against Warren Woods-Tower, one they would also win.
All of that is familiar for Alexander and the Mariners. The start of the season, however, was far from it.
“It was different than anything I’ve ever experienced,” Alexander said of Marine City’s first 0-4 start since 1971. “I’ve been on varsity for three years now, and to start 0-4, it was the first time I’ve ever felt anything like that since I’ve been in the program, since I’ve been in Marine City.
“It was a new feeling, but it was also a sense of motivation. It pushed me harder knowing that we had something to prove and that everyone was doubting us because we were 0-4. It’s hard to go through, but I think it made us a better team.”
Alexander and his teammates are on the road back, sitting at 3-4 and eyeing two more wins which could possibly preserve the school’s streak of qualifying for the postseason, which started in 1998. He said getting there would show those junior program players that by coming together as a team, you can accomplish anything.
The Mariners have already shown their coach plenty.
“I wondered, because our program has had so much success, what would happen if we had a bad start like this, how would that team be and how difficult would it be to coach,” Marine City coach Ron Glodich, who is in his fifth season as head coach after serving as a longtime assistant in the program. “What I found is these kids are incredible. Their perseverance and their work ethic has not changed. Nobody has quit, even though I challenge them week in and week out, nobody has quit. The bigger the challenge I give them, the bigger they step up.”
‘We live football’
Football in Marine City has a bit of a “Friday Night Lights” feel to it.
The town with a population of a little more than 4,000 essentially shuts down on game nights to support its team. Not long ago, it moved trick-or-treating because it conflicted with a Friday night playoff game. When the team went to Ford Field for MHSAA championship games in 2007, 2011 and 2013, it filled its entire side of the lower bowl with fans clad in orange and black.
“It’s a football crazy town,” Alexander said. “We live football.”
Kids grow up wanting to be Mariners as much as they grow up wanting to be Wolverines or Spartans, and you can’t even go to a JV game without seeing groups of them playing a side game of touch – or tackle – at East China Stadium.
“They were always winning, ever since I’ve been a kid and ever since my parents have been around,” senior lineman Andrew Steinmetz said. “It’s a great feeling to grow up here, live here and then play here.”
Always winning isn’t hyperbole, especially for someone Steinmetz’s age. The playoff streak is only scratching the surface of the Mariners’ success in the past few decades.
The program won MHSAA championships in 2007 and 2013, and – prior to this year – had lost more than two games in a season only three times since 1992.
From 2006 through 2009, Marine City had three undefeated regular seasons, and in the only exception, it went 13-1 with a Division 4 championship. The Mariners’ last losing season came in 1982.
There have been stars who went onto play Division I college football – Brendon Kay, a 2008 graduate went to Cincinnati and was the Most Valuable Player of the Belk Bowl, and Anthony Scarcelli, who was the Associated Press Division 3-4 Player of the Year in 2011 and is currently a senior on Central Michigan University’s football team – but most of Marine City’s success has come thanks to players who don’t have a recruiting site ranking.
“When you mention the name Marine City outside the area, it’s common for someone to say, ‘Oh, you’ve got a great football program,’” Glodich said. “And we’re proud of that. It’s been a long time since we built it, and a lot of people are proud of it in the area and they come out to support it. It’s nice that that’s linked to the town, and that people believe we have a great football program. And I believe we do.”
In Marine City, even 8-1 teams catch flack. At 0-4, the loud minority of the fan base gets more vocal.
“As any coach who doesn’t win, there are critics out there,” Glodich said. “I happened to get a letter and I shared it with the kids. I told them, ‘We’re all in this together. You’re being criticized in the stands, I’m being criticized, so understand that we’re all in this together and it’s all about getting better.’
“The good news is, I’m at the point in my career where I know that this staff does a great job. So when you get letters like that, you chuckle and say, ‘OK, this person is venting, but they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.’ And I would tell that person if they ever had the guts to look me in the eye, I would tell them, ‘You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.’”
Glodich’s players said they were able to shut out the outside noise, for the most part, and anything that did enter their brains was used as motivation. Alexander said it went in one ear and out the other, because practicing with a clear mind was much more necessary than reacting to insults.
Even better, however, was the fact there was much more support than derision. Marine City may be football crazy and unaccustomed to waking up on a Saturday after a loss, but its love for football goes beyond a stunning win-loss record.
“The parents and the past players, they really had our backs,” senior lineman Tom Kaminski said. “(Former player) Ethan Cleve made a nice Facebook message on the Marine City football fans page, and (former player) Jarrett Mathison was saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, it will get better.’”
Writing the final chapter
The message within the team was similar to Mathison’s, but the players knew they were the ones who would have to make things better.
“A lot of it came from themselves,” Glodich said. “After that fourth loss, we challenged them and said you guys make a decision of how you want to move forward. That’s where your senior leadership and the guys that really care about the program, they kind of step forward and they rally the troops. We challenged them come Monday, and they responded to the challenge.”
The change could be seen in practice, and it translated into a 37-29 win against Madison Heights Madison in Week 5. That was followed by a 27-6 win against St. Clair in Week 6 and most recently a 49-31 win against Warren Woods-Tower in Week 7.
“We just had to put our heads down and keep fighting for it, because we knew we were better than what we were,” Kaminski said. “It’s big on your shoulders, because everyone’s used to 9-0 teams here, so that was a big wake-up call, but I think we’ve got it.”
As stated above, while this is a position Glodich never wanted to be in, he said he’s always wondered what would happen if a Marine City team had a start like this one. He’s wondered how the players would react. He’s wondered how difficult it would be to coach a team that no longer held its playoff destiny in its own hands before the midpoint of the season.
“I’m amazed that these kids are working this hard – I don’t know if any other team that was 0-4 is working as hard as we do,” Glodich said. “It’s just a credit to these kids and their background; they’re not afraid to work. The kids that come to school here in this community are not afraid to work, and that’s why I’m one of the luckiest guys in the state to be able to coach in this community.”
The 0-4 start may have put the Mariners on the brink of playoff extinction, but their opponents in weeks 1-4 could wind up helping push them over the top when it comes to playoff selection, should Marine City get to 5-4.
Algonac, Port Huron Northern, Detroit Loyola and Marysville were a combined 25-3 through seven weeks, with one of those losses a Northern defeat against Marysville.
The Mariners are taking the one-game-at-a-time approach to the end of the season, but they know that can help. They know they can do something special to close it out, and accomplish something no Marine City team has done before – rebound from a start that could cause some to pack it in.
Glodich said he can’t look past the next game, but admits he and his coaches have talked to the players about writing the final chapter in their book, and how they want their story to end.
Alexander has already started writing in his head.
“It would mean the world (to finish 5-4) especially because it’s my senior year and I’d love to end on a high note,” he said. “I’d love to be the team that started 0-4, won the last five games and then proved what we have in the playoffs. We have a good team, we have a good shot.
“We just want to get to 5-4. We don’t really focus on anything else (in terms of playoff points). If we get there, it doesn’t matter, we’ll be happy.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Marine City's MJ Frank cuts through an opening against Marysville this season. (Middle) A group of Mariners surround and take down a Port Huron Northern ball carrier. (Photos courtesy of the Marine City football program.)
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.)