By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
DETROIT — What do you get the football coach who has everything?
How about a perfect 14-0 season?
Better yet, how about a third straight MHSAA championship as a nice going-away present?
Al Fracassa had accomplished just about everything during his legendary 45-year career at Birmingham Brother Rice, but his final three teams embraced the school's tradition and elevated it to an even higher level.
Brother Rice won its ninth MHSAA title — all under Fracassa — with a 38-21 victory in a rematch against Muskegon in the Division 2 championship game on Friday at Ford Field.
Before this current run, Brother Rice hadn't won back-to-back MHSAA championships. The school record for victories was set by the 2000 team, which went 13-1. The school's last undefeated team was in 1983. The Warriors' 23-game winning streak is one short of the school record set from 1976-78.
"I wish I was young enough to coach some more," said Fracassa, 81. "When you love something so much, it's very difficult to leave. I'm going to still love football; it's done a lot for me."
Fracassa finished his career with a 430-117-7 record, ranking first in Michigan history and sixth nationally in victories. That included eight seasons at Royal Oak Shrine before he was hired as Rice's head coach in 1969.
"I'm glad I made it," Fracassa said. "Now I can rest easy. I'll probably be very sad for awhile, and hopefully I'll be strong enough mentally to handle this."
Friday's game was such a special occasion that even his wife, Phyllis, was in the stands.
"My wife never comes to games," Fracassa said. "She used to come, but she'd be so nervous that she'd beat everybody up next to her. Today, she came with my daughter, who flew in from Omaha. It was nice for her to see us play and have a great victory. I can't wait to see her."
Whoever takes over at Brother Rice has an excellent chance of extending the Warriors' championship and winning streaks.
Brother Rice will return junior quarterback Alex Malzone, who has been outstanding in two MHSAA Finals appearances. Malzone completed his first nine passes against Muskegon, finishing 20 for 24 for 263 yards and four touchdowns. In two title games, he is 28 for 34 for 430 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. Malzone was in a rotation last year with Cheyne Lacanaria.
Malzone also ran 17 yards as the holder on a fake field goal attempt with 4:33 left in the game.
"For him to go out with what we've done is an overall great feeling," Malzone said. "It's going to be different without him on the field every practice. He's the best coach I've ever had. I'm going to miss him a lot."
Corey Lacanaria caught 10 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, while Grant Perry had five catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
The teams picked up where they left off in their wild finish in 2012, when a 91-yard kickoff return by Jason Alessi off a lateral gave Brother Rice a 35-28 victory.
Last year, they combined for 42 points during the final 13 minutes and 58 seconds after staging a defensive battle most of the way. On Friday, they scored on the first four possessions of the game, creating a 14-14 deadlock with 1:09 left in the first quarter. Going back to last year, that added up to 70 combined points in only 24:49 of playing time.
Malzone started out 9 for 9 for 125 yards and two touchdowns, hitting Damaris Woods with a 16-yard touchdown pass on the first series of the game and Perry on a one-handed 34-yard grab with 4:24 left in the first quarter.
Muskegon responded to each of those scores with touchdown runs by quarterback Deshaun Thrower, whose 6-yard run capped the Big Reds' first drive and whose 16-yarder tied the game at 14-14 on the next possession.
Perry's second touchdown catch, an 18-yard play with 1:07 left in the first half, gave Brother Rice a 21-14 halftime lead.
The key to the game was that Brother Rice shut down Muskegon's ground game after halftime. Thrower ran 12 times for 117 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, leading a rushing attack that piled up 216 yards on 21 carries. In the second half, Thrower was held to minus-18 yards on 10 carries. As a team, the Big Reds had minus-9 yards on 13 carries in the second half.
Muskegon didn't have the ball beyond its 36-yard line in the second half until 3:30 left in the game when Thrower hit Justin Foster with an 86-yard touchdown pass. But by then Brother Rice had extended its lead to 38-14 on a 21-yard touchdown pass from Malzone to Lacanaria and Malzone's 17-yard touchdown run on the fake field goal.
"They changed defenses in the second half," Thrower said. "A couple of missed opportunities set us back. We couldn't get in a rhythm again."
Muskegon has five MHSAA titles, but has been denied a sixth by Brother Rice two years in a row. The Big Reds last won the championship in 2008.
"I'm going to go back and evaluate what we're doing wrong in the championship game," Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said. "It's my responsibility and my duty to put these kids in the right position and give them a better chance to win a state championship. It must be something I'm doing. These kids played a heck of a game. They fought through a lot. They're tough as nails. They played 28 games for our fans the last two years. There's going to be a winner and a loser. Unfortunately, the last two years we fell on the other end of it."
While Fairfield works on bringing a title back to the state's all-time winningest program, Fracassa will be a spectator while Brother Rice goes for a fourth consecutive MHSAA title in 2014.
"It's hit me the whole season when I'd go home every night," Fracassa said. "I couldn't believe it's going to be my last year. I try not to think about it. Football kept me busy, but it's here. It's time for someone else to take over. I'd like to mention my coaching staff. ... They did an outstanding job coaching my boys. I hate to take all the credit. They coached and did most of the coaching. I did most of the yelling."
PHOTOS: (Top) Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa celebrates one more MHSAA championship with his team Friday. (Middle) Warriors quarterback Alex Malzone tries to break away from Muskegon's Terry Copeland (5) and Jordan Waire (7). (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography.)
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.)