Saints Remember, Rally During Semifinal Run

November 20, 2015

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

ST. IGNACE – Tradition and excellence are distinctive parts of the athletic program at LaSalle High School at this eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula.

Located at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge, St. Ignace has won five MHSAA girls basketball championships since 1999, and the school's football team won the 1983 Class C title. The football team also is currently preparing for its third MHSAA Semifinal appearance since 2011.

When the Saints face two-time defending Division 8 champion Muskegon Catholic Central on Saturday at Thirlby Field in Traverse City, they will have an extra player in their huddle.

Mitchell Snyder, a three-year starter at center, was killed in a car accident following the school's homecoming in October when he was struck by an alleged drunk driver.

"Since his death, the team has really come together as a unit," said veteran St. Ignace News sportswriter Dave Latva.

Head coach Marty Spencer, in his 19th season at the helm, agreed. "This has been a rallying point for us," said Spencer, noting the Snyder family has become an integral part of every football game.

"This has brought us closer; it has brought his family closer to us. We have rallied around him. He is with us. He is on our shoulders. He is in our huddle."

Snyder's father, Brent, wears his son's No. 69 jersey to every game, and the players reach out and touch the jersey as they leave the locker room for the field. His number also appears on the back of each player's helmet.

In the first game after the accident, against Ironwood and played in Gladstone, Brent Snyder asked the Saints what they thought Mitchell would want them to do. Snyder told them Mitchell loved to play football, and they should continue to play the game.

The Saints ran their opening two plays against Ironwood with just 10 players, in memory of their deceased teammate. "Mitchell was there blocking for us," said Spencer.

Spencer said the coaching staff and players talked extensively about the tragic accident. "It was tough that first week. We struggled," said Spencer. "We talked a lot trying to find answers, and you never can answer those questions.

"We had to do that for our well-being, for us to survive. As he helps us through each game, it gets better and better for us. Not just for us, for the whole community."

Spencer has guided St. Ignace to an 11-1 record. Its only loss was 20-14 to unbeaten Ishpeming, which is in the Division 7 Semifinals for the fourth straight year. Last week the Saints beat perennial Division 8 power Crystal Falls Forest Park 22-8.

"Our kids are pretty resilient," said Spencer. "He (Mitchell Snyder) has been our backbone for this run. It could have destroyed us all. Mitchell's dad said there should be no more crying. Mitchell is not crying. He wants you to play football."

Because the Saints have played such powerful foes as Ishpeming and Forest Park, they will not be intimidated going up against a team the stature of Muskegon Catholic Central. "They are bigger than us, they have size and speed," said Spencer. "Our kids are confident. We have played some good teams (including also Fowler and Johannesburg-Lewiston). We are ready."

Leading the Saints is senior Gage Kreski, an all-state prospect in football and basketball and highly-sought college recruit in both sports. Kreski is the team's quarterback and was the Upper Peninsula's defensive player of the year (small school division, as voted by media) as a back. He also does the punting and returns punts.

"He does so much," said Spencer, noting Kreski had 11 interceptions as a sophomore and this year has scored off two of his three interceptions as offenses steer away from him. "He is a constant athlete who keeps working. He can play anywhere. He could be one heckuva wide receiver," said Spencer.

Kreski has rushed for 851 yards and added another 1,235 yards passing. He has solid backfield support from Mitchell Peterson, Andrew Goldthorpe and Dave LaVake, with linemen Cole Garen and Jared Helms setting the interior tempo for the two-time Ski Valley Conference champions.

Spencer said the heavily balanced Saints have emphasized defense this year with a 52 alignment (five linemen, two linebackers). "Against the run, this is the best it has ever been," he said.

The narrow loss to Ishpeming provided a confidence boost for the Saints, who have a fully home-grown coaching staff under Spencer, a downstate native. Spencer coached nearly every assistant coach when they played and said having St. Ignace grads on the staff "helps continue the legacy that has been built."

Two of the aides are volunteers who moved back home this fall, Chase and Zach Pierson, the sons of legendary St. Ignace football standout and coach Barry Pierson.

"It is nice having people who know the tradition here, the ins and outs of what the program means to people," said Spencer.

Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at sportsdenesk[email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) St. Ignace players all wear a decal on their helmets in memory of late teammate Mitchell Snyder. (Middle) A Saints defender stacks up an Indian River Inland Lakes ball-carrier earlier this season. (Below) St. Ignace huddles during a break in play. (Photos courtesy of Kristi Gustafson.)

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)