Rice Sends Out 'Coach' on Winning Note

November 29, 2013

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."

Click for the full box score. 

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.)

For Their Teams, For Each Other, St. Mary Seniors Team Up 2 More Times

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

March 17, 2023

Shawn Bramer and Dylan Barnowski, as middle schoolers, attended the MHSAA Boys Basketball Finals every year.

Northern Lower PeninsulaLast year, they nearly played in the Division 3 title game – falling in a Semifinal but almost making a dream come true for the then-juniors and their Lake Leelanau St. Mary coach, Matt Barnowski, also Dylan’s father.

That dream began for some when the boys were coached by Matt as third graders, and they made serious strides last season. Before last winter, the last time the Eagles had won a Regional championship was 1950 – and no St. Mary boys basketball team had reached the Semifinals. Bramer and Dylan Barnowski – along with current seniors Jack Glynn, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar – had high hopes of making more history this winter.

The dream ended Wednesday night with a Regional Final loss to Frankfort, which St. Mary had defeated 54-41 during the regular season. This time, the Eagles were faced with a large number of K-12 students succumbing to illness – with all five of its starters at least somewhat sick – as nearly a third of the school’s tiny enrollment was out of school the day after the loss to the Panthers.

But you won’t hear any of the players or coaches making excuses. They give all the credit to Frankfort, and they’re ready to move on. And many in the LSM family know reaching the Regional Finals this season and Breslin Center in 2022 had absolutely no probability had Bramer and Barnowski not made an iron-clad agreement last summer. 

Eagles coach Matt Barnowski coaches up his team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick.The two friends vowed to help each other despite their personal, opposing challenges.

Barnowski and Bramer, through LSM’s cooperative agreement with Suttons Bay, went 3-for-3 playing in 8-Player Division 1 Football Finals during their first three years of high school. But through last summer Barnowski, who quarterbacked the Norseman, had no interest in football.  

Bramer, meanwhile, had been nursing a quad tendon injury since his sophomore football season and battling two bad knees but was thinking he could suffer though football and sit out the basketball season to recover. The all-state running back experienced training difficulties and even had his strength training severely hampered.

Football was king for Bramer, and he also loved basketball too. Basketball is number one to Barnowski. The longtime friends decided cut a deal to help each other — and their teammates — out.

“I was kind of on the edge,” said Bramer, who plays with braces on both knees. “After talking to each other, we both ended up just playing. 

“I really shouldn’t be playing sports, but I couldn’t miss out playing with my friends,” he continued. “We just figured it was our last season so we might as well just do it.”

Dylan Barnowski and Brammer also teamed up during successful football careers. Barnowski had been considering ending his football days immediately after the Norse fell short in their third-straight trip to the Finals, at Superior Dome in Marquette in Fall 2021. That loss was at the hands of Adrian Lenawee Christian 31-20.

The Norseman graduated most of their offensive and defense lines last spring and expected to be small in numbers. Until this fall, they had lost only one regular-season game on their way to three straight title game appearances. This year they finished 3-5.

The big linemen losses — Barnowski’s protection — was forcing him to weigh his injury risk against having a senior basketball season.

“We did it for each other,” Barnowski said. “I talked with Shawn, and we knew we had a big community behind us and it would be hard for them if we just quit. 

“I knew we weren’t going to have the same powerhouse team we had,” he continued. “We weren’t very good this year, but we still had a blast.”

This week’s loss put an end to the possible Breslin championship finish, but it left the friends happy with the decision to play both sports. The Eagles finished 20-4.

Barnowski led St. Mary in scoring. He averaged better than 20 points a game with more than seven rebounds and five assists. Bramer averaged just under 15 points per game, and almost 10 rebounds.

The two big men each scored 11 in the season-ending loss. Thompson scored 14. This year’s senior-dominated team likely will be remembered for its basketball success for some time. Barnowski, Bramer and Glynn experienced only one loss in District play over their four seasons.

“It’s a really special groups of kids,” Coach Barnowski said. “These kids kind of transformed St. Mary’s basketball.  

St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Brammer, Jack Gwynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. “They’ve really built the program,” he continued. “It’s been a roller coaster ride.”

Bramer and Dylan Barnowski also played baseball in the past for the Eagles, but that likely won’t happen this spring. Barnowski plans to golf, and Bramer expects to sit the spring season out and heal.

“We’ll never forget these last four years of varsity we played,” Barnowski said. “I‘ve decided to go a more relaxing route, and I’m going for some golf.”

With their Breslin dream over, the friends are ready to enjoy the St. Mary’s community support and move on. They’re bummed so many were sick in the end but won’t use it as an excuse.

“Hats off to Frankfort,” Barnowski said. “They did an incredible job of shutting us down.”

Bramer agreed.

“They just played their game better than we did,” he said. “They took the lead at the end of the third quarter, and it was a battle from there.”

Tom SpencerTom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at tomspencer@chartermi.net with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS (Top) St. Mary’s seniors Dylan Barnowski, left, and Shawn Bramer hold up the team’s District championship trophy last week. (2) Eagles coach Matt Barnowski, center, and assistant Sander Scott coach up their team during last week’s Regional Semifinal win over Mesick. (3) Dylan Barnowski and Bramer also teamed up during successful football careers. (4) St. Mary’s seniors, from left: Shawn Bramer, Jack Glynn, Dylan Barnowski, Drew Thompson and Nick Linguar. (Sideline photo by Tom Spencer; player photos by Emmerson Lamb Photography.)