New Football Coaches Rise for PCCP Schools

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

August 30, 2018

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.)

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.)