QB Leads Ithaca Back to Legendary Level

November 27, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

DETROIT – At halftime of Friday’s Division 6 Final, Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook told his quarterback Jake Smith he was the best player on the field and needed to play like it. 

Or something like that – no doubt a little more directly, with a few more words that got right to the heart of Smith’s importance in helping the Yellowjackets avoid the disappointment of taking home the second-place trophy for the second season in a row.

Two quarters later, the list of Ithaca quarterbacks who have put up memorable performances at Ford Field grew by one. 

Cementing his place in a line of signal callers who have led Ithaca to 83 wins in 84 games, Smith directed a second-half rally that pushed the Yellowjackets past Clinton 27-20 for their fifth MHSAA championship in six seasons.

A year ago, Smith and his teammates left the field after a loss to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central ended a national-best 69-game winning streak. This time, Ithaca trailed 13-0 early in the third quarter before scoring 27 straight points over 15 minutes to take a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. 

“He knew he could get more out of me, and as an offense we definitely produced,” said Smith of his coach’s halftime cajoling. “I wasn’t really panicking. I knew if we get behind, we’ve still got to keep playing. I wasn’t going to let it happen like it happened last year. I didn’t want to experience that feeling again, so I just played as hard as I could.

“It means so much to everybody on our team. Everybody really just wants to go out on top. Everybody wants to be number one. We finished that climb this year and we stuck the flag in the mountain, and it just feels so great.” 

And it surely was a bit of a relief too.

Many of the team’s 17 seniors saw the field for most of the 2014 trip to Detroit, perhaps offering a little more motivation to bounce back for the program’s fifth perfect season over the last six. 

“It was immense pressure, and to be honest, that made me very nervous. I talked to the players about it before the game today, that I was so happy because since day one last year after we got beat their goal was to get back to Ford Field,” Hessbrook said. “And I thought we had a championship-caliber football team, but I think a lot of people had championship-caliber football teams and somewhere along the line they get caught up and something goes wrong.

“I was glad they were able to play their last game in an Ithaca uniform here at Ford Field and have a chance ... to play for a championship.” 

The Yellowjackets (14-0) finished off their best defensive performance of the run in terms of points allowed, giving up only 107 this fall despite dealing the first and only losses to three contenders over the last four weeks.

That defense played a massive role Friday, holding a Clinton rushing attack that averaged 297 yards per game this season to only 179. The Redskins had only 14 yards rushing over five second-half possessions after taking the 13-0 third-quarter lead. 

But while the Yellowjackets held Clinton’s offense in check, it came down to Smith to carry them over the top.

The Ithaca run of quarterbacks starring at Ford Field started with Alex Niznak, who ran for five touchdowns in 2010 to lead the Yellowjackets to their first title. Then came Jake’s older brother Travis Smith, who put his name all over the record book in 2011 and 2013 wins – sandwiched around 2012, when back-up Logan Hessbrook came in after Travis Smith was hurt and led Ithaca to another MHSAA Finals victory. 

Jake Smith was decent in last season’s Final, running for 90 yards and a score and throwing for 147 yards and the other touchdown as Ithaca fell 22-12. But his first half Friday was not at all noteworthy – six yards rushing and 60 passing.

Then came Hessbrook's pep talk. 

“The first half, we did what we wanted to do,” Clinton coach Scott McNitt said. “We kept him in front of us. We didn’t let him get loose. But the third quarter, he found something. And he showed he was the best player on the field.”

Four minutes into the third quarter, Smith scored Ithaca’s first touchdown on a 14-yard run. Three and a half minutes later, Smith connected with senior Spence DeMull on a 22-yard pass in the seam, and two plays later connected with DeMull on the same route for a score that put the Yellowjackets ahead 14-13. 

The next possession saw Smith's performance climb toward another level.

With 14 seconds left in the third quarter, he dropped back and rolled left, spun away from a near-sack, down the left sideline – and just as it looked like he would dive at the near pylon, Smith side-stepped right and whirled into the end zone. Ithaca 21, Clinton 13.   

Smith added one more touchdown run from a yard out to put the Yellowjackets up 27-13 with 7:47 to play. Noah Poore’s 4-yard run at 4:59 pulled Clinton back within seven. But after Ithaca ran the clock down to 1:47 on its next possession, Clinton went to the air and completed only one of four passes before Ithaca senior Derek Teed ended the threat with a fourth-down sack.

Teed had three of his team’s 11 tackles for losses. Senior linebacker Jace Demenov led the effort on that side of the ball with 10 tackles, and junior linebacker Lane O’Boyle had eight.

Smith ended with 126 yards rushing to go with three scores and 180 yards passing with a touchdown. 

For Clinton, senior running back/linebacker Mathew Sexton ran for 141 yards and a score and had six tackles. Senior linebacker Ken DeShano had 11 tackles.

Sexton also played a major role when Clinton fell to Ithaca 41-22 in the 2013 Final, and ran for more than 2,000 yards this season as the Redskins (13-1) charged through this run toward the rematch, eliminating reigning champion St. Mary among one of the most impressive slates of playoff opponents in any division. 

“The gauntlet we’ve gone through these past four weeks – St. Mary, Madison Heights (Madison), (Jackson) Lumen Christi, (Grand Rapids) NorthPointe Christian, may have taken some of what we needed in the tank out of us,” McNitt said. “But these kids battled to the end … and had a chance at the end.”

Coaches almost always decline to compare teams from year to year, and especially championship winners. 

But Hessbrook admitted this run was a little sweeter than some of the rest because of what it allowed for the players who walked off sadly a year ago and the legacy they were able to finish on a winning note.

“It would be hard for me to put them into numerical order and say this one is my favorite one or that one is my favorite one,” Hessbrook said. “But I’ll say this about this group of seniors: I don’t think that any class at Ithaca has ever dedicated themselves to winning a championship more than this class has, and that’s why it was so important for them to do that." 

Click for a full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca quarterback Jake Smith breaks a tackle during Friday's Division 6 Final. (Middle) The Yellowjackets celebrate their fifth MHSAA title in six seasons.

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com 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.)