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.)

Southfield A&T, Marshall End Belleville's 2-Year Reign with 1st Finals Championship

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

November 27, 2023

DETROIT – Isaiah Marshall took a second Sunday night to think about the interception he’d just thrown that led to Belleville taking a late lead in the Division 1 Football Final.

But just a second.

When Marshall and his Southfield Arts & Technology teammates took the field down four points with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining at Ford Field, the interception wasn’t on his mind. Neither was the raucous Belleville crowd that had awoken on the home side of the stadium. 

He wasn’t thinking about stopping a three-peat or snapping a 38-game Belleville win streak. He wasn’t thinking about the talk he’d heard during the week leading up to the game, that his team was on its way to getting blown out like so many of those previous 38 opponents. 

All Marshall was focused on was doing his job.

“As soon as I threw the pick, I knew what I had to do differently,” Marshall said. “I just wasn’t thinking about that last play. As soon as I threw the pick, I just thought about it on the bench, then as soon as I came out, it wasn’t on my mind at all. I just knew I had to go down the field and score.”

Like he had all night, Marshall came through when the Warriors needed him most, leading his team on a 69-yard scoring drive, finishing the final 11 with his legs for the go-ahead score in Southfield A&T’s 36-32 victory against Belleville. 

The Warriors ended the night by raising their first championship trophy. His defense finished the rest, as Dorian Freeman intercepted a pass during the final seconds, sealing the first Finals title for Southfield. 

“It’s special,” A&T coach Aaron Marshall said. “It’s special for the community. It’s a long time coming. All week I’ve been getting calls from guys I’ve never met just congratulating the boys on making it. We had never even made it to the championship game, let alone won one. It’s real big for the community. I’m really proud.”

To do it, the Warriors needed to overcome the team that has dominated Division 1 for the past three seasons in Belleville (13-1). The Tigers had won the past two Division 1 Finals, and hadn’t dropped a game since Sept. 10, 2021.

They entered Sunday having outscored opponents this fall by an average of 49-7. They also featured the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2025 in quarterback Bryce Underwood.

But Sunday, none of that mattered to Marshall and the Warriors (13-1). Well, except maybe the last part.

“Just a little bit,” Marshall said when asked if he was out to prove he was the state’s top quarterback. “I do think I’m the best player in the state. Me proving that tonight, and showing what I can do on the big stage shows that, I think.”

He finished the night completing 20 of 31 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns, as well as two interceptions. He also rushed for 134 yards and the go-ahead score, as well as the two-point conversion that put his team up four.

“He came out there and played like I thought he was going to play,” said Belleville star linebacker and running back Jeremiah Beasley, who has committed to Michigan. “He’s a real tough player. Since we were little, he’s always been tough. He came out there and played with all his heart, and they came out on top.”

Underwood certainly had his moments, finishing 11 for 24 for 164 yards and a touchdown to go along with one interception. He also had five rushes for 39 yards. 

And A&T was certainly cognizant of what Underwood could do, especially when he got the ball back with 47 seconds to play and a chance to take the lead. But by playing coverage, they didn’t allow the Tigers to push the ball down the field, and eventually pressure from senior defensive tackle Reggie Gardner forced the throw that Freeman intercepted to clinch the game.

Belleville’s Adrian Walker (2) makes a stunning behind-the-back interception.“My coaches just told me to spy the quarterback, and whatever he did, I would go,” Freeman said. “Then it was just right in my zone.”

A&T led for most of the game, getting a pair of rushing touchdowns from Mathias Davis during the first half, the second score giving them a 12-7 lead. 

After a 31-yard field goal from Belleville’s Brayden Lane made the score 12-10, Marshall engineered an 80-yard drive over the final three minutes of the second quarter to give his team a 10-point lead at the half. He accounted for 79 of the 80 yards with either his legs or his arm, finishing it off with a 13-yard TD pass to Tashi Braceful with 13 seconds remaining in the half. Braceful finished the night with 10 catches for 152 yards.

The Warriors nearly added to that halftime lead, as well, recovering a squib kick at the Belleville 43. Marshall hit Tyjuan Esper for a 38-yard gain on the next play, but he was tackled as the first-half clock expired.

Early in the third quarter, Marshall and the Warriors did stretch their lead when he threw a 19-yard TD pass to Xavi Bowman on a 4th-and-14. DaMario Quarles’ conversion run put them up 28-10 with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.

Of course, Belleville didn’t go away.

The Tigers responded immediately with a 45-yard TD pass from Underwood to Jalen Johnson. And after stopping Marshall on a 4th-and-2 run near midfield, they needed just three plays and 30 seconds to pull within three points of the lead as Beasley scored on a 15-yard run.

On the next A&T possession, Marquis Peoples put Belleville right back in business with an interception that he returned to the 35-yard line. Beasley again cashed in three plays later, with a 22-yard TD run that gave Belleville a 33-27 lead with 4:47 remaining.

Beasley finished the night with 106 yards and the two touchdowns on the ground.

“He’s a senior ball player; he did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Belleville coach Calvin Norman said of Beasley. “He came through in the clutch. When he ran the ball, he did his thing. I have nothing but love for the young man.”

Belleville cornerback Adrian Walker made one of the more remarkable plays of the weekend late in the first quarter, intercepting a Marshall pass deep in A&T territory. 

Walker got both hands on the pass, deflecting it up and toward himself as he was spinning up the field. The ball went over his head and Walker reached behind his back to make the catch at the A&T 26.

Four plays later, Belleville was on the board with a 16-yard Colbey Reed touchdown run, and the Tigers led 7-6.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T quarterback Isaiah Marshall stretches for the game-winning touchdown during Sunday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Warriors ended the night by raising their first championship trophy. (Below) Belleville’s Adrian Walker (2) makes a stunning behind-the-back interception. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)