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.)
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.)