CANTON – Athletically, the Plymouth-Canton Community School system is like no other.
Canton, Plymouth and Salem are the three high schools and all equally share student-athletes, who are randomly assigned to one of the three high schools in seventh grade.
This football season there is an added twist for the football players. All three schools have new varsity head coaches.
Former assistant Andy Lafata has taken over at Canton, while Brian Lewis has taken over Plymouth after leading Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard last season and Justin Reed brings championship experience to Salem after most recently assisting at Warren DeLaSalle and then Livonia Clarenceville.
“We’re finding out as coaches that the seniors don’t care that there is a new coach,” Lafata said. “There are goals that are attainable. They have high expectations. They don’t care who’s coaching. They want results.
“Plymouth (as a school district) has high expectations. It doesn’t matter (who the head coach is). What you learn is the kids are still the same. And we owe it to them to be the best coaches we can be.”
Two started 1-0 last week, Plymouth downing Livonia Stevenson 35-11 and Salem defeating Wayne Memorial 23-14. Canton opened with a 35-21 loss to Livonia Churchill.
Athletes’ expectations may be the same at all three schools, but as noted, the district is unique. Without being specific to the point of confusing, here’s the nutshell on how PCCS students are assigned to a high school:
As noted above, students entering seventh grade in the district are assigned at random, by computer, to one of the three high schools. It doesn’t matter where they want to study or whether they want to play football at Canton or softball at Plymouth or soccer at Salem. A student’s name is in the computer, and the selection process plays no favorites. If a student transfers into the school system, that student also has a 33 percent chance of attending any of the three schools.
Individual classes, however, can be a mix of students from all of them. It’s common for a student at Plymouth to have algebra classmates from Canton or Salem. You could have a student sitting next to you, and on Friday that same student could be doing his or her best to tackle you in the open field. All three high schools are located on the same campus, so classrooms are equally accessible to students from all three.
Still with me? In addition there is just one marching band that represents all three schools – and the only time it plays during a football game is during homecoming for each.
Back to football. Of the three programs, the players at Canton might appear to have the easier time adjusting to the new coach. Lafata is a 2005 graduate of Canton and spent the last 10 seasons as an assistant coach under Tim Baechler, who retired as head coach following last season's 10-2 finish. Lafata was the starting center on the 2005 team that, with Baechler at the helm, reached the school’s only MHSAA Final – losing to Rockford, 31-21, in Division 1.
Reed, Salem’s new coach, is leading a program for the first time. His previous coaching experience, seven years in all, was split as an assistant between four schools – Royal Oak, Sterling Heights Stevenson and Warren DeLaSalle and, most recently, at Livonia Clarenceville in 2017. The Rocks finished 5-5 last season.
At 29, Plymouth’s Lewis is the youngest of the trio, but he does have experience as a head coach after leading Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard in 2017. Plymouth is coming off a 4-5 season, and his Gabriel Richard team was 7-3.
Lafata, 30, also benefitted by being hired in February. Reed was hired in early June, Lewis a few weeks later.
“To tell you the truth, having three schools on campus is unusual,” Lewis said. “We just focus on ourselves. The other things that happened (in the district) doesn’t affect us. The challenge for me, (Plymouth) is bigger than Richard. The bigger challenge is, I’m an east-sider. I have to learn the different nuances of how they run things here. It’s a work in progress. I have great administrative support. I’m hitting the ground running.”
Lewis was wise to surround himself with coaches who have experience at the high school and college levels. One important hire was his father Mike Lewis, a longtime defensive coordinator at DeLaSalle and Detroit Catholic Central, Mike’s alma mater. Lewis also lured Mike Mach away from Catholic Central where his father, the legendary Tom Mach, coached for 41 seasons. Cory Zirbel, a former University of Michigan offensive lineman, is also on the staff. Zirbel coached with Rich Rodriguez at Arizona.
Lewis played football at DeLaSalle and then cut his coaching teeth at his alma mater, Michigan, as an offensive analysist – or what Lewis termed as a sort of graduate assistant, from 2012-14. When Brady Hoke was fired as U-M’s head coach, Lewis decided to place his family (he has a wife, Teddi, and a 1-year-old child, Evelyn) above a potential college coaching career as he pursued teaching and coaching at the high school level instead.
Reed, 34, spent his first three seasons as an assistant at Royal Oak before going to DeLaSalle under Paul Verska, and he helped the veteran coach win the Division 2 title in 2015. He’s been working toward this kind of opportunity.
“To have your own program, for the first time, the hardest thing is to convince the community that it’ll work,” he said. “For Andy it’s different. It’s a carryover.
“It’s a positive atmosphere here. They’re craving for success. We’re adding kids all the time. I got my 35th player (on varsity) the day after our first scrimmage. We have a freshmen team, too. They didn’t have one last year. It’s invaluable. It was a lot of work. I was kind of like a salesman.
“It’s an exciting time. For all three of us.”
Lafata, by all accounts, was the right person at the right time to replace Baechler. The retired coach had built the program into not only one of the best in the Detroit area, but one that competed well throughout the state. Since 1999, Canton has made the playoffs every season but one. The Chiefs came within one play of reaching the Finals a second time but lost to Detroit Cass Tech in a 2015 Semifinal, 48-41.
“Last year we knew every week was a special week,” Lafata said. “We all knew Tim would leave once his son (Lou, a linebacker) graduated. It was like being a senior when you knew this would be the last year that this group would be together.”
Lafata also is the offensive coordinator, a position he held under Baechler. Don’t look for Lafata to change the way Canton plays, especially on that side of the ball. The Chiefs will continue to run the full-house, T-formation with double tight ends and on occasion slip a receiver out wide with one of the three backs on a wing.
“Canton stays Canton,” he said. “We coach what we know.
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Clockwise from left: Salem coach Justin Reed, Canton coach Andy Lafata and Plymouth coach Brian Lewis. (Middle) Lafata stands for the national anthem with his players. (Below) Salem players celebrate last week during a win over Wayne Memorial. (Photos submitted by respective athletic departments.)
Ben Jones always had the same, simple message, even if it was 100 degrees and sunny or 35 degrees and raining sideways, and whether he was playing for a powerhouse like Muskegon Catholic Central or coaching a program trying to establish itself at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood.
“We get to play football today,” Jones would say, as many of those around him were complaining and grumbling.
It was never “have to” for Jones, but always “get to.”
Jones, who was about to start his second year as head coach at Cranbrook, had his life tragically cut short by a drunk driver who crashed into his vehicle as he was traveling home from work in Detroit on Aug. 19, 2020. He was just 30 years old.
While Jones is gone, leaving a hole as large and painful as the 6-foot-2, 260-pound frame he carried as a tight end in his senior year at Hillsdale College, that “Get To” mentality is alive and well, and thriving and growing – thanks in large part to the efforts of his football teammates from Muskegon Catholic and later at Hillsdale.
The Get To Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was formed in Jones’ honor and has grown exponentially in less than three years, providing grants to sports organizations and scholarships to student-athletes.
“There is a core group of about 10 of them that have worked on (the foundation), and it’s been amazing,” said Theresa Jones, Ben’s mother, who with her husband Bruce has worked with the foundation. “It started small, and then it caught fire.”
The president of the foundation is Tim Hornak, Jones’ best friend and teammate in the trenches at both Muskegon Catholic and Hillsdale. Hornak returned to deliver a pre-game speech before the Crusaders’ home game on Sept. 15 against Kalamazoo United, where he talked about the man who is the inspiration behind the rapidly-growing Get To movement.
“You don’t have to, you get to – that simple difference can change your lives,” said Hornak, who teamed with Jones when both were seniors to help the Crusaders to a 14-0 record and the Division 8 championship in 2008. “You get to play football tonight and continue the tradition that started here in the 1950s.
“You get a chance to line up and play a great game with your best friends.”
Inspired by Hornak’s words and Jones’ legacy, the Crusaders downed Kalamazoo United 27-7 that night, the team’s second-straight win after an 0-2 start, which put them back in the Division 8 playoff picture.
A tailgate party was held before the game as a fundraiser for the Get To Foundation, and it happened to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the Crusaders’ 2008 championship team – arguably one of the best teams in the school’s storied history. MCC has won 12 state championships, trailing only Farmington Hills Harrison in state playoff history.
The phrase “get to,” according to Hornak, goes back to the whiteboard in the MCC locker room his sophomore year and perfectly captures Jones’ approach to life and to football, whether his team was unbeaten like at MCC or struggling like the Chargers did just after he and Hornak graduated.
Jones, who wore No. 62 at MCC, was a two-way starting lineman who also played on the Crusaders’ 2006 championship team as a sophomore. His best friends on the team were the Hornak twins, Tim and Jon, whose father Mike was an assistant coach.
After his funeral service on Aug. 24, 2020, Jones’ hearse made a stop at MCC’s Kehren Stadium on the way to the cemetery, taking a lap on the track around Mike Holmes Field.
He went on to play on three teams which won or shared Great Lakes Interscholastic Athletic Conference titles at Hillsdale, where he wore No. 91 and played tight end and H-back.
“He had an inner self-confidence that you could tell right away when talking to him,” said Hillsdale coach Keith Otterbein. “He was very positive. He encouraged his teammates.”
Jones graduated from Hillsdale in 2013 with a degree in financial management and a minor in mathematics, moved to Royal Oak and took a job as a portfolio manager and financial planner at Schwartz & Co. Investment Advisors.
In his free time, he worked as an assistant varsity football coach at Cranbrook from 2015 to 2018, before being elevated to head coach in 2019 at the age of 28.
One of his first actions as head coach was getting Cranbrook football T-shirts printed with the message “Get To” on the back. Jones guided the Cranes to a 6-4 record and a Division 4 playoff berth in what would prove to be his only season as head coach.
He died nine days before Cranbrook’s scheduled season opener in 2020, which ended up being delayed six weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the immediate aftermath of Jones’ shocking death, the Hornak brothers and other former teammates vowed to do something to honor Ben and to help out his family. Out of that mission, the Get To Foundation was born.
Get To has awarded scholarships for the past three years. In 2023 alone, the foundation awarded $16,000 in scholarships to 22 student-athletes from around the state.
In addition, Get To has awarded $55,000 in grants to 17 organizations – including $3,000 to the Eaton Rapids High School football program for new shoulder pads and helmets and $2,500 to the Detroit Tigers Foundation’s Gloves for Kids program.
The next event on the foundation’s busy calendar is a speech by best-selling motivational author Jon Gordon at Lawrence Tech University on Oct. 17.
The foundation’s board has trademarked the phrase “Get To” and hopes to continue to grow the organization’s size and scope – in a way mirroring how big and impactful Ben’s life could have been if it wasn’t cut short.
For more information or to make a donation, go to the organization’s website at www.gettofoundation.org.
The relentless efforts of Ben’s ex-teammates to keep his memory alive means the world to his parents, as well as his two younger siblings – Alissa, a standout swimmer at Hillsdale who is now the school’s assistant women’s swimming coach; and Nate, who also played football for the Chargers and is now a foreign currency trader for Barclay’s, based in New York City.
Theresa Jones said coming together with all of Ben’s closest friends for Get To Foundation events has been a continuous blessing for the family.
“Every time we have an event for the foundation, it’s all of Ben’s friends and family members dressed up and having a good time,” his mother said. “It always feels like Ben’s wedding reception that he never got to have.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Ben Jones is shown before the 2008 Division 8 championship game at Ford Field during his senior year at Muskegon Catholic Central. The Crusaders defeated Crystal Falls Forest Park, 40-0. (Middle) Jones works with his linemen during his first year as head coach at Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood in 2019. (Below) A plaque honoring Jones has been placed in the tunnel leading from the home locker room to the football field at Hillsdale College. (Top photo by Tim Reilly. Additional photos courtesy of the Get To Foundation.)