By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
DETROIT — Glamorous moments come rarely for wide receivers in Orchard Lake St. Mary's offense.
Junior K.J. Hamler would be the primary weapon in many offenses, but he knows his role with St. Mary’s — make the blocks that keep the chains moving for a pound-and-ground attack.
When his number is called, he needs to make the most of it — and he usually does.
Hamler caught four passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns, as the Eaglets repeated as MHSAA Division 3 champions with a 29-12 victory over Chelsea on Saturday at Ford Field.
He hauled in a 34-yard pass from Brendan Tabone on a go route to give St. Mary's a 15-0 lead with 4:09 left in the first quarter. Hamler’s 16-yard catch-and-run of a screen pass from Tabone made it a 22-6 game with 7:31 to go in the third quarter.
"I'm always prepared for anything," Hamler said. "I know we're a running powerhouse team. I've just got to prepare to block better. As soon as coach (George) Porritt gives our team a chance to pass the ball, I try my best."
A year ago, Hamler didn't have a catch in the championship game. Tabone had a minimal role as a passer, going 3 for 11 for 31 yards in a 7-0 victory over Muskegon.
St. Mary's ran the ball on its first 15 plays of this game before Tabone got the green light to go deep to Hamler. The Eaglets ran eight more plays before the next pass was called. They finished with 293 rushing yards on 56 carries, while Tabone went 5 for 9 passing for 79 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
"I look forward to every pass play, because we don't throw a ton," Tabone said. "We have such great backs. It was really special to be able to have an impact on the game; I'll remember it forever."
Tabone said Hamler has the right mental framework to play wide receiver in St. Mary's offense.
"K.J.'s such a great guy," he said. "He's selfless. Whenever his number gets called, our eyes light up and we do our best to make a big play when we can."
The flashes of brilliance in the passing game added to a championship performance that was typical for St. Mary's — grind down the opponent with the running game and stifle it with defense.
Justin Myrick had 108 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, Troy Marks had 105 yards on 17 carries, Rashawn Allen had 55 yards on 13 carries, and Ryan Johnson had 22 yards on three carries to lead the balanced ground game.
"We have depth in our running backs, so if somebody gets hurt we can put in somebody else," said Myrick, who missed the Semifinal victory over East Grand Rapids with an injured hamstring.
Brandon Adams, who ran for the only touchdown in last year's championship victory, missed the game because of an injury sustained on his only carry in the Semifinal.
The Eaglets repeated as MHSAA champions for only the second time in 13 Finals appearances. They won back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000, missing out on their three-peat bid in a 14-7 loss to Chesaning in 2001.
"At the beginning of the season, we were ranked No. 1 and all that good stuff," said junior linebacker Josh Ross, who had six tackles and an interception. "It was a lot of pressure. We had to come through it. We suffered a bad loss (31-8 to Warren DeLaSalle), which made us bond together as brothers. We came through all that adversity and won the state championship. I couldn't be prouder of our team."
It looked like St. Mary's might run away with it early. The Eaglets were leading 15-0 when they elected to go for a 33-yard field goal on fourth-and-inches from Chelsea's 17-yard line on their third possession. John Kwiecinski missed for only the second time in 10 field goal tries this season, opening the door for the Bulldogs (12-2) to get back in the game.
It took them only four plays to get into the end zone, as Graham Kuras took a reverse and heaved a 47-yard touchdown pass to Noah vanReesema with 8:22 left in the second quarter. Ralph Holley blocked the extra point, leaving the score at 15-6.
"That's our go-to trick play," Kuras said. "I was looking over for Noah. Usually, he's halfway across the field. This time, he wasn't. I was kind of lost on the play. I saw the safety get drawn up, so I knew he'd be open. I stepped up and threw it. I thought I overthrew it. I saw him step into second gear. That was probably one of the biggest plays in the game. Getting down 15-0 right away, we were kind of low on ourselves. Getting a score like that with the crowd behind us and boosting everyone's confidence was key to this game. Without that, it could've been much worse."
St. Mary's took that 15-6 lead into halftime, then expanded it to 22-6 on the 16-yard pass to Hamler following a shanked 11-yard punt.
Chelsea was held to only 13 yards rushing on 22 carries, but was able to do some damage through the air. A 14-yard touchdown pass from Jack Bush to Cameron Cooper with 5:07 left in the third quarter got the Bulldogs within 22-12. A 2-point pass that would've made it a one-possession margin was incomplete.
The response was a vintage St. Mary's drive, a 13-play, 80-yard march made up entirely of running plays. The Eaglets took 6:13 off the clock before Myrick scored on a 3-yard run to make it 29-12 with 8:44 left in the game.
The championship was within St. Mary's grasp once the defense came up with a big goal line stand on the following Chelsea drive. The Bulldogs had first-and-goal at the 3 but ended up with a turnover on downs with 5:39 left.
Chelsea would never touch the ball again, as St. Mary's ran out the final 5:39 with a 10-play, 48-yard drive.
"That's our football," Porritt said. "That last drive was big-time for us. The last drive and the defensive stop were our M.O. for the year. The defense has come up big in some goal line situations. Our offense running clock and having long sustained drives has been our football strategy all year."
Bush was 13 for 21 for 145 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He was sacked four times.
While St. Mary's is a regular visitor to the championship game, it was the first time Chelsea made it this far.
"As sad as it is to be over, I wouldn't want to end it anywhere else with any other guys or any other team," Kuras said. "It was the experience of a lifetime."
PHOTOS: (Top) K.J. Hamler beats the Chelsea defense for one of his two touchdowns Saturday. (Middle) The Eaglets celebrate their second straight Division 3 championship.
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.)