By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
A first-time MHSAA 8-player football champion will be crowned Friday at Greenville's Legacy Field, and for the first time that champion won’t hail from Michigan’s thumb region.
This season’s title will be decided by the Upper Peninsula’s Cedarville and Lawrence, from the southwest corner of the Lower Peninsula, after thumb teams Carsonville-Port Sanilac, Deckerville and Peck claimed the first three MHSAA titles for the 8-player format.
Tickets for the 8-player Final cost $8. Can’t make the trip? Watch the game live on FoxSportsDetroit.com, with live audio streaming on MHSAANetwork.com. The game will be broadcast on delay on Fox Sports Detroit at 3:30 p.m. Saturday and again on Nov. 27 at 7 p.m. The on-demand video will be available shortly after the game’s conclusion at MHSAA.TV.
Here’s a look at the finalists:
Coach: Scott Barr, seventh season (62-14)
League finish: Second in Bridge Football Alliance
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 57-14 and 39-0 (Regional Semifinal) over Bellaire, 28-0 over Rapid River in Regional Final, 36-20 over Deckerville in Semifinal.
Players to watch: QB/CB Joey Duncan, 6-1/170, sr., (57-100, 1,002 yards, 19 TDs passing; 959 yards, 15 TDs rushing); FB/LB/K Mike Bailey, 5-11/190, sr. (1,281 yards, 11 TDs rushing); SE/CB Brad Causley, 6-3/180, sr. (677 yards, 11 TDs receiving, 2 kickoff return TDs, 4 punt return TDs); SE/LB Mike Haske, 6-1/180, jr.; C/DE Brett Masuga, 6-5/240, sr.; OG/DE Blake Melvin, 6-0/230, sr.
Outlook: Including 11-player football, Cedarville made the playoffs 10 straight seasons before breaking through to the Semifinals during this 11th consecutive run. But Duncan and Causley in particular have plenty of crunch time experience; they were the leading scores for Cedarville in its Class D Basketball Semifinal in March. The defense has been especially impressive, considering also in context of the high-scoring 8-player game; the Trojans didn’t give up a point until the fourth game of the regular season and then not in the playoffs until last week’s Semifinal. Causley is dangerous whenever he touches the ball – in addition to his 17 combined receiving and special teams touchdowns, he’s also brought back two interceptions for scores. Melvin, a two-way all-league selection in 2013, had 19 tackles in the Semifinal. Cedarville’s lone loss came Week 6 to rival Rapid River, 20-19, and the Trojans avenged with a 28-0 win in the Regional Final.
Coach: Cody Caswell, fifth season (24-27)
League finish: Does not play in a conference.
Championship history: Class D 11-player champion 1997, Class D runner-up 1990.
Best wins: 52-20 over Deckerville, 40-19 and 50-14 (Regional Final) over Battle Creek St. Philip, 50-6 over Portland St. Patrick in Regional Semifinal, 66-40 over Peck in Semifinal.
Players to watch: QB/FS/K/P Derek Gribler, 5-9/170, sr. (114-180, 2,343 yards, 41 TDs passing; 1,601 yards, 21 TDs rushing); WR/CB Mike Cammire, 6-0/185, sr. (1,179 yards, 25 TDs receiving); RB/CB Hunter Coombs, 5-10/165, jr. (663 yards, 12 TDs rushing, 7 TDs receiving); WR/CB Jacob Alburtus, 5-8/145, jr. (442 yards, 6 TDs receiving); OL/LB Jimmy Phelps, 6-0/200, sr.; C/DL Jared Frank, 5-11/225, sr.
Outlook: Lawrence’s ascension to 8-player elite has been speedy; the Tigers were 0-9 and 1-8 in 11-player in 2011 and 2012, respectively, made the switch and advanced to the Semifinals in 8-player in 2013. Only St. Philip in their first meeting and reigning champion Peck in the Semifinal came within 32 of beating Lawrence this season. Gribler’s Semifinal performance was simply incredible – six passing touchdowns and three rushing – and Cammire has been the team’s top target during both seasons of 8-player. St. Philip in that first meeting also was the only team to keep Lawrence under 50 points. And don’t forget about the defense; the Tigers have five shutouts, and only Peck scored more than 20 points against them this fall.
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.)