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.)
Separated by 527 travel miles – whether over Mackinac Bridge or around Lake Michigan, the Novara family celebrated nearly parallel football successes this fall.
At Portland, John Novara completed his 25th season as head coach leading the Raiders to a 12-1 record – their best since finishing Division 5 runner-up in 2018, and a second-straight Capital Area Activities Conference White championship on the way to reaching the Division 4 Semifinals.
At Kingsford, fifth-year coach Mark Novara led the Flivvers to a 10-2 record – their best since posting the same in 2004. Kingsford shared the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title and won a Division 5 District title, its first District championship since 2009.
John Novara graduated from Iron Mountain in 1989, and younger brother Mark graduated from Kingsford in 1993.
Similarly parallel, both teams were quarterbacked by Novaras. Dominic Novara directed the Raiders’ attack, and cousin Nic Novara led the Flivvers. Both are juniors. (Mark Novara was a Division III All-American at quarterback at Lakeland College in Wisconsin.)
One more connection: Portland athletic director Kevin Veale quarterbacked the Iron Mountain teams with John Novara as tight end long before they worked together downstate. Veale’s nephew Garrett Veale was a standout two-way lineman for Mark Novara and Kingsford this fall.
Small gesture, memorable connection
Dante DeGrazia’s senior season was sadly short-lived this fall, as he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of South Lyon East’s opening game against White Lake Lakeland at Michigan Stadium.
But an official provided a memory the DeGrazias will not forget.
Chris Curtis had begun his 16th season as an official earlier that day at U-M, and stuck around to watch the Lakes Valley Conference matchup. A month later, he was officiating the East/Warren Mott game, and made sure to check in with DeGrazia – a small gesture, but a meaningful one as well and another reminder of the interconnectedness of communities within educational athletics.
“When he heard my son wasn't able to play anymore, needed surgery and that he was a senior, he offered him kindness and a hug on the field,” Dante’s mother Dana DeGrazia wrote to East athletic director Greg Michaels. “As a parent whose son is going through a rough time dealing with losing his senior season, hearing this story from Dante means a lot to me and the support that was given to him and I wanted to reach out and tell him thank you.”
PHOTOS (Top) Kingsford football coach Mark Novara, far left, quarterback Nic Novara and Portland coach (and uncle) John Novara celebrate the Flivvers' District title. (Middle) South Lyon East's Dante DeGrazia (33) and official Chris Curtis meet for a quick hug during East's Week 5 game. (Photos courtesy of the Portland football program and DeGrazia family, respectively.)