By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half
READING – Nick Affholter didn’t score a point for the Reading Rangers this season. No touchdowns, no extra points, no 2-point conversions.
But, when it came time to vote for the Most Valuable Player in the Big 8, the conference coaches left no doubt that Affholter – an offensive and defensive lineman – was the best player in the conference.
“As a coach, he has been my nightmare,” Concord coach Max Clark said.
“When game-planning for the last three years, we’ve had to begin our planning based on how we can avoid him,” said Matt Schwartzkopf, head coach at Springport.
Frank Keller of Jonesville recalled a specific play that painted the picture of Affholter’s impact.
“I remember one time we ran a sweep on the other side of the field, and he tackled our running back for a two-yard loss – on a sweep,” Keller said. “He was just dominant on both sides of the ball. He’s the best kid on the field.”
Those coaches are happy they won’t have to worry about Affholter anymore. Tonight, he’ll lead his 9-1 Rangers in a District Final against the undefeated Cassopolis Rangers. For Reading, it’s a chance to continue a journey that could the program back-to-back Division 8 championships. Both coaches will tell you the game starts up front, and that’s where Affholter excels.
“He’s been dominant the last couple of years,” Reading head coach Rick Bailey said. “I think last year our running back (Ethan LoPresto) stole a lot of the spotlight, but people knew how good Nick was. He’s the most dominant one-on-one football player that I’ve ever seen at the high school level. This is the first time I can remember in my 35 years that an offensive lineman was selected the league MVP.”
Affholter is a multi-sport, four-year varsity football player, a class officer at Reading – where he carries a 4.0 grade point average – and a member of the National Honor Society and leader of the school’s chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“He’s humble and kind,” Bailey said. “He’s a total team player.”
Clark also saw something else in Affholter.
“He has never been anything but an amazing sport and leader,” the Concord coach said. “He stayed after, cleaning up the bench after a basketball game at our court when most of his team was all out chatting with family and friends.”
Reading is in the midst of a dominant run in football. When Affholter was a freshman, the Rangers had their second consecutive 3-6 season. As a sophomore they improved to 8-3, before bowing out of the Division 7 playoffs with a loss to Cassopolis. Last season, Reading ran the table, going 14-0 while scoring 678 points and giving up just 114 in finishing the season at Ford Field.
This year, Reading had to replace last year’s league MVP in LoPresto and started the season with a 14-0 loss to 2018 Division 7 champion Pewamo-Westphalia. Since then, however, the Rangers have been incredible, winning nine straight games while shutting out four opponents and outscoring all of them by a combined 449-38. Reading averages 420 yards rushing a game.
Affholter is a two-way starting lineman. On offense, he plays tackle and gives Bailey the closest thing to a sure thing.
“We’ve been able to dominate teams on his side. We just count on Nick’s block as a win,” Bailey said. “His technique is good, but I think people would be surprised of how athletic he is. If they watch him, they’ll see he can run. People are always surprised with his quickness and foot speed. It’s hard to simulate what he’s going to do.”
Affholter is also a difference-maker on defense.
“Two of our opponents simply chose not to run the football, and only a few tried to run it on his side,” Bailey said. “One team just lined up and threw the ball on every single play, except the last play of the game when they ran the ball when he was out.”
Clark said Concord tried something completely different against Reading.
“I showed up to Reading with a completely different offense because of him and his brother,” Clark said.
Reading still pulled out a 44-12 win.
Affholter has taken the postseason accolades in stride.
“I worked really hard for it,” he said. “It’s nice to see offensive lineman get some love. Just because we don’t touch the ball doesn’t mean we aren’t impacting the game.
“I don’t know how many offensive linemen get recognized like that. I figured I’d get all-conference, and that would be that. Seeing other people notice me and not just a running back or quarterback is pretty awesome.”
Affholter said he is 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, which makes him a half-inch taller and 20 pounds heavier than his twin brother Ben.
“I love playing football with my brother,” Nick said. “We do everything together. My little brother is up on the team now. He’s 6-foot, 230. He’s still growing.”
Their dad was an All-American offensive lineman at Hillsdale College, and their mom played volleyball there. Nick started playing football in grade school, where his grandfather began teaching him footwork.
“I love finishing my blocks,” he said. “I get excited when I get a pancake block. That was always special to me.”
He’s a student of the game, too, spending hours each week studying film of his opponent.
“I watch a lot of film of the defensive linemen or the offensive linemen,” Affholter said. “You can figure out what they are going to do in certain situations, see what their favorite move is. You know what to look for when the play starts. It definitely gives you an edge.”
Reading is sure to lean on Affholter tonight. The visiting Rangers have been just as stout as the home Rangers, outscoring opponents 403-17 this season.
“It’s going to be a great game,” Bailey said. “They are a big play waiting to happen.”
Affholter says the Reading home crowd will be rocking at Barre Field.
“Being out there on the football field is home,” he said. “It’s amazing. Every Friday night the stands are always full. I think it rivals any small-town football community anywhere.”
Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
FOOTBALL: (Top) Reading’s Nick Affholter lines up against Mendon during last week’s 38-0 playoff win. (Middle) Affholter, who also has a twin and younger brother on the varsity. (Photos courtesy of the Reading athletic department.)
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.)