Northern Powers Building on Tradition

October 28, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – Matt Stapleton jokes when he talks about his 19-year run as the Frankfort football coach.

“If you ask how many games we’ve won while I’ve been here, the answer would be, ‘Not enough,’” he quipped. “And if you ask how many we’ve lost, it would be “Too many.’”

Well, nobody is asking that second question, particularly this season. Frankfort heads into tonight’s MHSAA Division 8 playoffs with a perfect 9-0 record. The Panthers are one of two unbeaten in the northern Lower Peninsula. Traverse City St. Francis is the other.

That should come as no surprise to those who follow football in the north. The two schools are the winningest programs, percentage-wise, in the area. St. Francis ranks seventh in the state with a winning percentage of 76.8 percent since the school started playing football in 1951. Frankfort ranks 24th with a 71.4 winning percentage since 1950.

St. Francis, which has won six MHSAA championships, just put together back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons for the second time in school history. The 1991-92 teams also accomplished the feat. Gladiators head coach Josh Sellers played on the 1991 team as did offensive line coach Aaron Biggar and offensive coordinator Scott Doriot, who was also the quarterback on the 1992 Class C title squad.

“After (last Friday’s win) I told the team, ‘Hey, welcome to the club, guys,” Sellers said.

“They took it in stride, but they should be happy and excited about it,” Doriot added. “It’s super special, a heck of an accomplishment.”

Frankfort, meanwhile, completed its first 9-0 regular season since 2004.

Now the two programs are back in familiar territory – the playoffs. St. Francis, which hosts Harbor Springs on Saturday in a Division 7 contest, is in the postseason for the 30th time since 1983. During one stretch, the Gladiators, who have reached the MHSAA Finals nine times, qualified 22 years in a row. Frankfort, which hosts Evart tonight, is in the playoffs for the 28th time in the last 32 years. The Panthers own two MHSAA crowns, and during one six-year stretch played for the title five times.

Maintaining that tradition is a powerful motivator at the two schools.

“It’s a ‘your turn’ mentality,” Stapleton said. “Each team has its own identity, but the goals remain the same. For this team, it’s our turn, our opportunity.”

The same holds true at St. Francis.

“We want to follow in the footsteps of the guys before us,” senior back Gabe Callery, a water boy on some previous MHSAA championship teams, said. “That’s why we set our goals so high, because we’ve seen what those teams did. Now we want to taste it for our own.”

Like many, Callery had an older brother play in the Gladiators program. So he and his teammates know the bar is set high.

“It’s expectations,” Sellers said. “The coaches don’t have to push (playoffs) as one of our goals. It’s engrained in the kids, especially in the multi-generational families that have been a part of the program here.”

St. Francis and Frankfort made strong playoff runs last season. The Gladiators reached the Division 6 Semifinals before losing to eventual champion Ithaca. Frankfort fell to Division 8 champion Muskegon Catholic Central in the Regional. St. Francis and Frankfort led those games in the second half.

Both teams have had just one tight game this season, and it came at home with Maple City Glen Lake. St. Francis downed the Lakers 21-13 in Week 2, while Frankfort rallied for a 26-21 triumph in Week 6. Those were the only two losses Glen Lake, a Division 6 qualifier, suffered during the regular season.

For the Panthers, that game was a defining moment. Not only did it put Frankfort in position to win the Northern Michigan Football League Leaders division, but it proved the Panthers could play with character and toughness under fire.

“That was an incredible (game), a good test for us to see if we could play at a high level for four quarters,” Stapleton said.

It helped to create an identity, he added.

“In those (pressure) situations, do you crumble or step up?” he said. “We stepped up pretty well.”

The players thought so, too.

“After that game, we thought, ‘Wow, we could make something happen this year,’” Panthers senior quarterback Tige Stockdale said.

“It meant a lot to us,” junior running back/linebacker Griffin Kelly added. “That was one of our goals – to beat Glen Lake. We worked hard and (played) with a lot of heart. We were the underdogs. I don’t think they expected it.”

St. Francis, meanwhile, cruised to the Northern Michigan Football League’s Legends crown, taking the title outright with a 22-0 win over Boyne City last Friday.

The Gladiators are an experienced team with 19 seniors on the roster.

“Experience is our strength,” Sellers said. “A good number of our seniors were on varsity as sophomores, especially up front on the offensive line. We have two juniors on the front seven, and one is a third-year varsity starter.”

St. Francis lost some key cogs to graduation in the backfield, but Callery returned for his third varsity season.

“He didn’t get a lot of touches last year,” Sellers said, “so he’s making up for lost time.”

Callery leads the ground game with 891 yards in eight games (one win was a forfeit), averaging 9.1 yards per carry. Tim Bott’s average is even better at 12.5 yards per carry. He’s picked up 401 yards on just 32 carries. Joey Muzljakovich has 390 rushing yards.

Sophomore quarterback Danny Passinault, who won a three-way battle for the job, oversees the offense, which averages 40 points per game. He’s completed 26 of 44 passes for 509 yards and 12 touchdowns. Chris Kolarevic (seven) and Michael Hegewald (four) have caught 11 of the 12 TD passes.

“We’ve been on an upward trend (offensively) the last four or five games, although I didn’t think we played our best against Boyne,” Doriot said.

Defensively, the Gladiators are limiting opponents to six points and just under 170 yards in total offense per contest. Ryan Lints, Kolarevic, Muzljakovich and Matt Biggar are the team’s leading tacklers. Lints, a lineman, has five sacks, Callery three interceptions.

The Gladiators are relatively healthy entering the postseason.

“We had a hold-your-breath moment against Cheboygan when we lost (back) Connor McGee,” Sellers said. “He dislocated his elbow, and we thought he would be out five to six weeks. But we found out today (Monday) he’s back. He missed two games.”

At Frankfort, Stapleton’s been pleased with his squad’s consistency in improving every week. He said that loss to Muskegon Catholic last November was a “springboard” for his players.

“Our kids were like, ‘We just went toe-to-toe with the team that won the last three (Division 8) state championships,’” Stapleton said. “Our kids felt disappointed because we could have won that game. We just didn’t finish.”

And that’s been the mindset this season.

Unlike St. Francis, the Panthers are not senior heavy. At times, Stapleton’s started four seniors on offense, four on defense.

Kelly is the sparkplug. He’s rushed for 1,250 yards on 132 carries (a 9.5-yard average) in eight games (one win was a forfeit).

“What’s nice about Grif is that he’s not consumed by statistics,” Stapleton said. “There’s only been three games he’s had carries in the fourth quarter.

“He’s a special player. He makes calling plays pretty easy. You want the ball in his hands. If he gets stuffed one play, he’s going to make something happen the next.”

Kelly runs behind a line that features 6-foot-3, 300-pound junior tackle Matt Stefanski, a “legitimate” college prospect, Stapleton said. The Panthers start three seniors and two juniors up front.

“I have a lot of trust in them,’ Kelly said of his line. “They’re outstanding.”

Stockdale is another weapon. He’s rushed for nearly 600 yards and passed for 300. He’s accounted for 15 touchdowns. Junior receiver Matt Loney is averaging 16 yards a reception for an offense that is scoring 43 points a game.

Kelly leads the defense with 85 tackles. Stefanski anchors the middle with seniors Colton Ryder and Wil Darling providing the pressure from their end positions and channeling plays to the interior.

Not unexpectedly, the future continues to look bright at St. Francis and Frankfort, too. The Gladiators junior varsity team finished unbeaten for the third year in a row, while the Frankfort JV team went 8-1, on the heels of two unbeaten campaigns.

For now, though, it’s a one-game-at-a-time mantra in the playoffs.

“We have one week guaranteed,” Frankfort’s Kelly said. “You never know if you’re going to have practice (the following) Monday.”

At St. Francis, Callery, for one, is savoring the final stretch of his high school career.

“Maybe it’s the weather getting cold, but it’s a different feel,” he said. “And if you don’t feel different during the playoffs, something’s wrong with you. It’s a special time.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Frankfort quarterback Tige Stockdale prepares to pitch during an Aug. 26 win over Manton. (Middle) St. Francis' Chris Kolarevic works upfield during his team's win over Cheboygan on Oct. 7. ( Below) Griffin Kelly (4) hurdles a would-be tackler for a touchdown against Central Lake on Sept. 2. (Photos by Amy Plumstead [Frankfort] and Leslie Julian [St. Francis].)

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.)