By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
MARQUETTE – Since the opening kickoff of 8-Player Football Playoffs in 2011, Rapid River has been on the verge of winning its first MHSAA Finals championship in this sport.
In that first year’s title game, also at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome, the Rockets fell to Carsonville-Port Sanilac. The next year saw a Semifinal run. And then in 2013 at Greenville’s Legacy Field, another title game defeat, to Peck.
Four seasons of earlier-round playoff losses followed. But all of those are more distant memories after Saturday.
Rapid River hoisted its first championship trophy in football after a 30-18 win over Onekama back at the Superior Dome in the 8-Player Division 2 Final.
“It’s my senior year. Our coach has been here twice, but never won it. To get him one before he would retire … (we) did it for all the people on my team,” Rockets senior Gunner Larson said. “Just an amazing experience. Gotta go for the ride.”
Just a quick note: Rapid River coach Steven Ostrenga didn’t announce his retirement after his 20th season running the program came to a close. But Larson and his teammates know it will happen someday – but now without the “what if” of just missing out on a championship.
Rapid River and Onekama both earned their first trophies of 2018 during the playoffs after both finished third in their respective leagues, Onekama behind two contenders for the Division 1 title and Rapid River behind Division 1 runner-up Pickford and Engadine, which the Rockets then beat in the first round by two points after falling to the Eagles by 18 only two weeks prior.
And Rapid River certainly played like a champion Saturday, relying on its strengths especially up front to outgain Onekama 341-212 in yardage – but more importantly, hold onto the ball for 33½ minutes to the Portagers’ 14:30.
The Rockets ran 66 times for 305 yards as a team, with junior Tyler Sundling gaining 123 and scoring two touchdowns and Larson running for 107 and a score. Senior quarterback Brent Lundquist tossed a 14-yard touchdown pass to senior Nate Olson during a change of pace.
Rapid River carried a 22-8 lead into the fourth quarter and held on despite two Onekama scores over the final 12 minutes.
“We’ve never given up that many yards rushing and that many points,” said Onekama coach John Neph, whose defense was allowing only 8.1 points per game entering the day. “So I think that speaks to the quality of the Rapid River offensive line and their backs. They’re flying around and doing some good things defensively, and that was a huge difference.
“We never thought we were out of the game till maybe the last touchdown there that the Rockets had. We hung in and hung in, and the offense kinda left the defense out there way too long. (And) the conversions they could get on third and fourth down were just critical to keep the drives going.”
Rapid River didn’t have a turnover and only six penalties. Onekama had five penalties but also lost two fumbles. And those Rockets conversions clearly were difference makers; Rapid River was 10 of 17 on third down and 4 of 6 on fourth, while Onekama was 4 of 10 on third downs and didn’t have a fourth down try.
“Every team that we have is unique. We had a lot of good football teams; other teams were just a little bit better than us in those games,” Ostrenga said of past playoff trips. “We made some mistakes today, but we were almost mistake-free. And that’s the key.”
He threw plenty of credit to his assistants for getting the team ready, to his linemen for their work up front, and to a host of other coaches – including one in basketball – who had influenced and taught him some things over the years. Ostrenga also has led his share of champions, including eight Upper Peninsula Finals winners in boys track & field.
And at the same time Saturday, it felt like Onekama could be following a similar path and only a few steps behind.
This championship game was the first in football for the Portagers, who are 19-5 over two seasons in 8-player after making the playoffs their last three seasons with 11 on the field.
Onekama will graduate some key contributors including running back/linebacker Ben Acton, who ran for 78 yards and a touchdown and also had a team-high 16 tackles including three for losses.
But the Portagers should also bring back 14 of 19 players next fall, including junior quarterback Luke Mauntler (188 yards, two touchdown passes Saturday) and junior tight end Wade Sedlar, who with senior tight end Rylan Clarke caught those scoring tosses.
Juniors Matthew Mallison and Taylor Bennett followed Acton with 15 and 13 tackles, respectively.
“We have five seniors, but we do have 11 juniors coming back,” Neph said. “So we’re hoping we can replicate this. It’s absolutely tasking on a team to repeat and get this far. There’s some outstanding teams we were able to overcome to get this far. We’d love to come here again, but it’s going to be a ton of hard work and effort moving forward.
“But again, this is an historic season for our program. The guys going to the state finals was just a dream come true for all of us.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Rapid River's Tyler Sundling (2) breaks several tackles and scores a touchdown Saturday. (Middle) Rapid River's Gunner Larson (33) is taken down by Onekama's Luke Mauntler (7) and Ben Johnson (12). (Photos by Cara Kamps.)
DETROIT – Isaiah Marshall took a second Sunday night to think about the interception he’d just thrown that led to Belleville taking a late lead in the Division 1 Football Final.
But just a second.
When Marshall and his Southfield Arts & Technology teammates took the field down four points with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining at Ford Field, the interception wasn’t on his mind. Neither was the raucous Belleville crowd that had awoken on the home side of the stadium.
He wasn’t thinking about stopping a three-peat or snapping a 38-game Belleville win streak. He wasn’t thinking about the talk he’d heard during the week leading up to the game, that his team was on its way to getting blown out like so many of those previous 38 opponents.
All Marshall was focused on was doing his job.
“As soon as I threw the pick, I knew what I had to do differently,” Marshall said. “I just wasn’t thinking about that last play. As soon as I threw the pick, I just thought about it on the bench, then as soon as I came out, it wasn’t on my mind at all. I just knew I had to go down the field and score.”
Like he had all night, Marshall came through when the Warriors needed him most, leading his team on a 69-yard scoring drive, finishing the final 11 with his legs for the go-ahead score in Southfield A&T’s 36-32 victory against Belleville.
His defense finished the rest, as Dorian Freeman intercepted a pass during the final seconds, sealing the first Finals title for Southfield.
“It’s special,” A&T coach Aaron Marshall said. “It’s special for the community. It’s a long time coming. All week I’ve been getting calls from guys I’ve never met just congratulating the boys on making it. We had never even made it to the championship game, let alone won one. It’s real big for the community. I’m really proud.”
To do it, the Warriors needed to overcome the team that has dominated Division 1 for the past three seasons in Belleville (13-1). The Tigers had won the past two Division 1 Finals, and hadn’t dropped a game since Sept. 10, 2021.
They entered Sunday having outscored opponents this fall by an average of 49-7. They also featured the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2025 in quarterback Bryce Underwood.
But Sunday, none of that mattered to Marshall and the Warriors (13-1). Well, except maybe the last part.
“Just a little bit,” Marshall said when asked if he was out to prove he was the state’s top quarterback. “I do think I’m the best player in the state. Me proving that tonight, and showing what I can do on the big stage shows that, I think.”
He finished the night completing 20 of 31 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns, as well as two interceptions. He also rushed for 134 yards and the go-ahead score, as well as the two-point conversion that put his team up four.
“He came out there and played like I thought he was going to play,” said Belleville star linebacker and running back Jeremiah Beasley, who has committed to Michigan. “He’s a real tough player. Since we were little, he’s always been tough. He came out there and played with all his heart, and they came out on top.”
Underwood certainly had his moments, finishing 11 for 24 for 164 yards and a touchdown to go along with one interception. He also had five rushes for 39 yards.
And A&T was certainly cognizant of what Underwood could do, especially when he got the ball back with 47 seconds to play and a chance to take the lead. But by playing coverage, they didn’t allow the Tigers to push the ball down the field, and eventually pressure from senior defensive tackle Reggie Gardner forced the throw that Freeman intercepted to clinch the game.
“My coaches just told me to spy the quarterback, and whatever he did, I would go,” Freeman said. “Then it was just right in my zone.”
A&T led for most of the game, getting a pair of rushing touchdowns from Mathias Davis during the first half, the second score giving them a 12-7 lead.
After a 31-yard field goal from Belleville’s Brayden Lane made the score 12-10, Marshall engineered an 80-yard drive over the final three minutes of the second quarter to give his team a 10-point lead at the half. He accounted for 79 of the 80 yards with either his legs or his arm, finishing it off with a 13-yard TD pass to Tashi Braceful with 13 seconds remaining in the half. Braceful finished the night with 10 catches for 152 yards.
The Warriors nearly added to that halftime lead, as well, recovering a squib kick at the Belleville 43. Marshall hit Tyjuan Esper for a 38-yard gain on the next play, but he was tackled as the first-half clock expired.
Early in the third quarter, Marshall and the Warriors did stretch their lead when he threw a 19-yard TD pass to Xavi Bowman on a 4th-and-14. DaMario Quarles’ conversion run put them up 28-10 with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.
Of course, Belleville didn’t go away.
The Tigers responded immediately with a 45-yard TD pass from Underwood to Jalen Johnson. And after stopping Marshall on a 4th-and-2 run near midfield, they needed just three plays and 30 seconds to pull within three points of the lead as Beasley scored on a 15-yard run.
On the next A&T possession, Marquis Peoples put Belleville right back in business with an interception that he returned to the 35-yard line. Beasley again cashed in three plays later, with a 22-yard TD run that gave Belleville a 33-27 lead with 4:47 remaining.
Beasley finished the night with 106 yards and the two touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s a senior ball player; he did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Belleville coach Calvin Norman said of Beasley. “He came through in the clutch. When he ran the ball, he did his thing. I have nothing but love for the young man.”
Belleville cornerback Adrian Walker made one of the more remarkable plays of the weekend late in the first quarter, intercepting a Marshall pass deep in A&T territory.
Walker got both hands on the pass, deflecting it up and toward himself as he was spinning up the field. The ball went over his head and Walker reached behind his back to make the catch at the A&T 26.
Four plays later, Belleville was on the board with a 16-yard Colbey Reed touchdown run, and the Tigers led 7-6.
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T quarterback Isaiah Marshall stretches for the game-winning touchdown during Sunday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Warriors ended the night by raising their first championship trophy. (Below) Belleville’s Adrian Walker (2) makes a stunning behind-the-back interception. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)