Martin Seizes Long-Awaited Opportunity with 1st Finals Win Since 1987

By Jason Juno
Special for

November 19, 2022

MARQUETTE – When their playoff run ends, teams can normally find some consolation if their loss comes to the eventual state champion.

But that got a little old for Martin.

The Clippers fell to Adrian Lenawee Christian in Semifinals the past two seasons and then watched them go on to win two 8-Player Division 1 championships. 

But this year was different; this was Martin’s year. The Clippers (11-2) took care of Lenawee Christian in the Regional round of the playoffs with a convincing 56-14 victory. And it was the Clippers lifting the Finals championship trophy at the Superior Dome on Saturday after a 74-24 victory over Merrill.

“This was our goal at the beginning of the year; it’s been our goal the last couple of years,” Martin coach Brad Blauvelt said. 

Merrill quarterback Joel Tack finds running room. The Clippers accomplished their mission with a star quarterback, JR Hildebrand, who ran for 191 yards and four touchdowns to lead the program to its first Finals title since his dad won one in 1987. They also made some big plays at big moments and relied on a stout run defense to contain Merrill, which made it closer than the score indicated.

“When I first found out what a state championship was, I knew that was our goal in the end,” said running back Karter Ribble, who rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns. “Then falling short the past couple years and then progressively getting better throughout the year, this year I knew it was coming. I knew we had what we needed to get to this moment.”

And what a moment it was for them.

The Clippers took a 20-0 lead thanks to a pair of touchdown runs by Hildebrand and another by Ribble. 

“We have a very fast team, and we used that to our advantage,” Blauvelt said. “We got outside, broke a couple tackles. We started fast all year, and tonight wasn’t any different.”

Merrill hung around throughout the first half. 

Vandals quarterback Joel Tack, who threw for 328 yards and three touchdowns, found Kaleb Walker for a 90-yard score late in the first quarter. It was 20-8 heading into the second.

Ribble ran 42 yards for a score 4 minutes, 14 seconds into the second quarter, to answer, and Hildebrand added a 10-yard TD run to put Martin ahead 34-8.

Merrill (12-1) struck with another big play, a 68-yard TD pass from Tack to Denver Coty that seemed likely to give the Vandals some momentum.

But Taegan Harris had other ideas.

The 5-foot-11, 155-pound junior ran the ensuing kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown, and Martin’s lead was 40-16 with 1:35 left in the first half. 

“That was huge,” Blauvelt said. “The game was kind of teeter tottering right there. I know we still had the lead, but we didn’t really feel comfortable after all that happened.”

Merrill turned it over on downs before the half was over, and Martin added a 25-yard field goal by James Blackburn for a 43-16 halftime lead.

Merrill coach Christian Wiley called the kick return a backbreaker.

“If we don’t give that up, we probably are able to do some different things,” he said. “Unfortunately, No. 1 (Harris), we knew he was a speed guy for them. He got the edge on us, and we got sucked down inside. Kicking it to the corner there, everybody drove down into that corner and he got around to the outside. That was a backbreaker for sure.”

The Clippers’ Karter Ribble (22) gets some air while celebrating at the Superior Dome. Merrill scored first in the second half, and it was the play of the day. Walker made a spectacular one-handed catch and then ran free to the end zone for a 67-yard touchdown with 8:30 left in the third quarter.

“We felt confident we could shut them down in the run game,” Blauvelt said. “And then we knew they were gonna chuck it on us, which they did. And their quarterback can throw, and their kids can catch. That one throw across the middle was a phenomenal catch.”

But it was all Martin from there. Hildebrand ran 57 yards for a TD, Braeden Shanley rushed 37 yards for another, Ribble ran one in from two yards out and Gavin Meyers hit Sam Jager for a 75-yard touchdown pass to wrap it up.

“Hat’s off to Martin,” Wiley said. “They did a tremendous job. They lost the last two years to the team that went out and won the state championship. They were loaded coming back, and they were a good team.

“... I thought we did some good things. We shot ourselves in the foot. But when you lose to a team that is of that caliber, there’s no shame in that. We played our hearts out right to the very end.”

Martin outrushed Merrill 374-26, led by the 190 from Hildebrand.

“If he’s not the Player of the Year in 8-man football, I don’t know who is,” Wiley said. “He’s a legit college-level football player.”

A tough schedule helped Martin go back downstate with a championship trophy. The Clippers defeated Division 2 runner-up Mendon to start the year and lost a pair of games to unbeaten teams, Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian and Bridgman.

While it may not have prepared them for the awe of playing in the Superior Dome and the Final, it certainly helped them during their playoff run.

“Walking in the Dome the other day and seeing it for the first time, we knew it was a big moment,” Blauvelt said. “However, playing some good teams, quality competition throughout the year, got us ready. The last couple years, we’ve been undefeated going into playoffs and we had two losses this year. I think that totally helped us prevail, and the moment wasn’t as big as it could have been.”

And now they’re finally state champions. Nothing much bigger than that.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Martin’s Taegan Harris (1) celebrates a touchdown during his team’s Division 1 Final win. (Middle) Merrill quarterback Joel Tack finds running room. (Below) The Clippers’ Karter Ribble (22) gets some air while celebrating at the Superior Dome. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)

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.)