Playoffs Packed with Livonia Power

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

October 25, 2017

LIVONIA – Let the good times roll.

Football fans in Livonia have been blessed recently with the success of Livonia Public Schools’ football programs, and this season is no exception. 

Churchill, Franklin and Stevenson all qualified for the MHSAA playoffs, and glancing at the pairings all have a reasonable shot at winning their Pre-District games and perhaps a District title as well.

Churchill and Franklin are both 7-2 and open Division 2 play as visitors, Churchill at Pinckney (8-1) and Franklin at Walled Lake Western (8-1). Stevenson will compete in Division 1 and, even though the Spartans are 5-4, will play host to Detroit Catholic Central (5-4). All three games are Friday at 7 p.m.

All three are members of the Kensington Lakes Activities Association. Franklin has made the playoffs three consecutive seasons and reached a Division 2 Semifinal in 2015. Churchill has qualified for the playoffs five of the last seven seasons and Stevenson, the most consistent program of the three, is in for the fifth time in the last six seasons. (Livonia Clarenceville, another public school in Livonia, is not part of the Livonia Public School system and did not make the playoffs this fall.)

The three head coaches agree that the source of this recent success is a thriving little league program, the Livonia Junior Athletic League. Four teams compete in the league – the Blue Jays, Eagles, Falcons and Orioles – and players range in age from 6 to 13. Those 6 and 7-year-olds compete in flag football.

The LJAL is the lifeline to the high schools because Livonia Public Schools does not sponsor middle school or junior high football.

“We’ve always had a strong little league program,” Franklin coach Chris Kelbert said. “With the little league program, our feeder program, we’ve worked hard to develop a system for them to do what we do.”

The Livonia schools haven’t always been so successful. Franklin, for example, won the first Class A title in 1975, then went 30 years before making its next playoff appearance. Stevenson made the playoffs just once in the first 19 seasons of the MHSAA tournament. But since 1993, the Spartans have qualified 16 times highlighted by a Division 1 championship game appearance in 2007 and a Semifinal appearance the following season.

Then there’s Churchill. The Chargers made the playoffs in 1979, then seemingly disappeared. Not only did they not make the playoffs again until 2004, the Chargers had one of the poorest runs in terms of victories in state history. From 1990-96 they won one game. At one point Churchill lost 34 consecutive. Following those rugged years the Chargers finished 2-7 five straight season (1997-2001).

Times have changed. John Filiatraut, now the head coach at Dearborn Divine Child, helped guide the Chargers out of those rough times as they won the school’s first District title in 2004 and finished 8-4. Except for a 1-8 season in 2005, Churchill has remained competitive since that bounce-back season.

Bill DiFillipo was an assistant under Filiatraut and is in his fifth season as Churchill’s head coach. He said talent in his program keeps improving and he credits the coaches, on his team and within the LJAL, for that progress. He also said the healthy rivalry that exists between the three schools has sparked enthusiasm and an increase in competitiveness.

“This is Churchill’s best run,” he said. “You have to have good feeder teams. We’ve done a good job of developing kids. Our senior class was 0-9 as freshmen, and they were 2-7 on the JV. Over at Franklin, Chris has done a good job. When Randy (Micallef) took over, Stevenson was down. Randy and his staff have done a good job of getting them back.”

Stevenson won just five games combined in 2010 and 2011. The Spartans made the playoffs in 2012 and missed the playoffs the following season, but then rattled off three straight appearances and will make it four straight this weekend.

The three programs annually play for a city championship. Stevenson has won the last two defeating Churchill and Franklin in each of the last two seasons.

Franklin’s only losses this fall were to Churchill and Stevenson, and the Patriots have won five straight since the second of those defeats.

Kelbert and his staff have done a remarkable job this season. Running back Isaac Moore was a part-time starter last season, and none of the other 10 starters on offense had started even one game. Franklin returned three starters on defense.

“We have a young offensive line,” Kelbert said. “We have two seniors there, and neither one played offense line before. But we’re clicking now. It’s been frustrating at times. We knew we had some good players coming back. After the Howell game (a 21-0 Franklin victory in Week 5), we saw some improvement. Our defense has been lights out all season. We adopted a new philosophy on defense. We wanted to be more athletic and have more speed. When Romeo won (the 2016 Division 1) title, they won it with small linemen who couldn’t be blocked. We figured we could use that philosophy. The game has changed dramatically in the 19 years I’ve coached in high school.”

Kelbert faced a different test this season. He’s starting his son, Jacob, at quarterback, and he’s just a sophomore. Jacob Kelbert played on the freshmen team last season after going through Livonia’s little league program.

“It has its challenges,” Kelbert said of coaching the eldest of his three sons. “I forget he’s young sometimes. I expect him to play like a senior.”

DiFillipo also has a first-year starter at quarterback, but at least this one was on varsity last season as a back-up. Junior Drew Alsobrooks has played well this season, and he’s benefitted from an experienced offensive line. Four seniors start on the offensive line and the lone junior, Ethan Gyurnek, started last season as a sophomore.

DiFillipo adds that it’s been a team effort.

“Our defense has played the best in the 10 years that I’ve been here,” he said. “We’re giving up 14 points a game.

“Franklin and us have had the best two defenses in our division (KLAA Gold). Grand Blanc has the best offense, and we held them to nine points. Franklin shut them out.”

It’s been a different season for Stevenson. The Spartans started 4-0, then lost three straight. They beat Salem, 31-10, in Week 8 before losing to Franklin, 35-21, in a KLAA crossover.

Micallef said he’s noticed an improvement in the level of skilled athletes to come through the three programs. Specifically in his program, players like quarterback Parker Graham, all-purpose athlete George Ferguson and two-way back Devin Dunn all have had experiences in other sports as well that have contributed to their competitive nature.

“The coaches have become progressively better across the board,” Micallef said. “And some of the kids who might have gone to private schools now are staying put. Catholic Central moving from Redford to Novi has had a hand in keeping some of the Livonia kids here.

“We have some really good athletes this season. Parker was a running back last year, and we played him in the secondary, too. But with him moving to quarterback, I’ve kept him off the defense. But I had him at linebacker last week, and he had like seven or eight tackles. Both him and Ferguson play basketball and baseball, and Devin is a multi-sport athlete, too. In crunch times, these kids have played in so many big baseball games or big basketball games that they’re not afraid to make the big play. They embrace that.”

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, Churchill’s Martell Dooley, Stevenson’s Parker Graham and Franklin’s Isaac Moore are among standouts for the Livonia Public Schools’ three playoff-bound varsity teams. (Middle top) Churchill junior quarterback Drew Alsobrooks has stepped in well as the starter this fall. (Middle below) Senior linebacker Jacob Mass helps key a more athletic Franklin defense this season. (Below) Senior George Ferguson is one of the multi-sport athletes making major contributions to Stevenson’s success. (Photos courtesy of the Churchill, Stevenson and Franklin football programs.)

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.)