Talented QB, Veteran Lineup Elevating Churchill Into League, D2 Challenger
By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half
September 22, 2021
The first item on the docket when one assesses the first half of the season for the Livonia Churchill football team is its 28-21 victory over Belleville on Sept. 10.
But turn back the pages and you'll find the success coach Bill DeFillippo and his Chargers are experiencing began during the pre-pandemic season of 2019.
Churchill (4-0) is expected to be tested again Friday when it travels to Dearborn High (3-1) in a Kensington Lakes Activities Association East game. Dearborn's loss was to Belleville (49-0). Churchill is tied with Dearborn Fordson (4-0) for first place at 3-0 in the East. Belleville (3-1) and Dearborn are a game back.
Two years ago DeFillippo started eight sophomores on a team that lost to Belleville 35-14 and finished 7-5 after a 1-4 start. Churchill was 6-3 during last year's COVID-shortened season, and expectations were high heading into this fall – especially with the return of quarterback Taj Williams.
Considered one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the Detroit area, DeFillippo is in his ninth season as Churchill's head coach. The previous five seasons he was the program's offensive coordinator under coach John Filiatraut. DeFillippo cut his teeth as the offensive coordinator at Ann Arbor Huron (1990-99) under coach Paul Verska. The 1997 Huron team reached the MHSAA Class AA Final before losing to Detroit Catholic Central, 23-7.
DeFillippo continues to run the offense, and his specialty is working with quarterbacks. With Williams, he has another in a long line of talented ones.
Beginning with Seth Suda in 2011, DeFillippo coached five quarterbacks who went on to play in college (one, Drew Alsobrooks, is on the Central Michigan baseball roster). Williams is quite possibly headed toward becoming his sixth.
Williams started a few games as a sophomore at Churchill. Before his junior season, his family followed a job move to Stockbridge, Ga., (Stockbridge High School), where Williams started three games before suffering a broken collarbone.
He's recovered well from that injury and has shown improvement in his return to Churchill, particularly in the passing game. Simply, Williams makes the offense go.
At 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Williams has always been a strong runner. This season he's become a true dual threat throwing for 10 touchdowns and just one interception. He's also rushed for three touchdowns, and his completion success is a tad under 70 percent.
In addition to his growth physically, Williams is playing with a chip on his shoulder. As a freshman he attended Belleville, where he was a starter on the junior varsity before transferring to Churchill. There were those who muttered that Williams feared the competition he faced at Belleville, and thus the transfer. The truth is, his family simply moved to Livonia.
“I have a lot to prove to a lot of people,” Williams said. “People doubted me. (People) said I left Belleville because I wouldn't play there.”
Williams owes his development to a handful of coaches, DeFillippo obviously included. Williams also credits his Stockbridge coach for assisting in his improvement as a pocket passer. Then there's Terrance Williams, Taj's uncle, who's the running backs coach at Churchill and has served as another mentor.
On a day-to-day basis, at practice or at home, Williams confides in DeFillippo. Take a Saturday afternoon for example. Both will be at their homes watching a college game, and they'll compare notes as to what type of offense a particular team is running. One will see a play work, and that'll start a conversation on what they can do to expand Churchill’s offense.
“(DeFillippo) has been very helpful,” Williams said. “He teaches me about the game. He breaks it down – how to learn my progressions.”
DeFillippo's shotgun spread scheme features Williams and his versatility, but there's much more to this offense that's averaging 42 points per game. Running back Boston Clegg is one of eight three-year starters, and his power running style allows Williams room to maneuver on the perimeter. Clegg started at linebacker his sophomore and junior seasons, but DeFillippo has limited his play on defense this season to keep him fresh on offense.
Josh Brown and Bailey Brooks have big-play potential at the receiver spot. The left side of the offensive line is anchored by tackle Matt Landis (6-4, 240) and guard Lawrence Nash-Martin (6-3, 285).
The defense allowed 54 points over the first two games, but has played well since. The line is loaded with experience as Demarius Gibson-Wells (DT), Kameron Balhorn (DE) and VJ Ragland (DE) are all three-year starters. Brown starts at cornerback and also returns kicks.
There are no big-time college recruits in the mix, but many of the seniors are being recruited by Division II and FCS schools.
“We have a lot of very good high school players,” said DeFillippo, a teacher in the Livonia school system since 1994. “We're a blue-collar community. We have a lot of kids who need football and love the sport.”
Churchill is ranked No. 2 in Division 2 according to the latest Associated Press poll, and DeFillippo is quick to point out that two KLAA East teams – Belleville and Fordson – are ranked in the top 10 in Division 1.
Belleville (3-1) remains the measuring stick for teams in the KLAA. The Tigers reached the MHSAA Division 1 Semifinals both of the past two seasons, losing to eventual champ West Bloomfield 35-34 in double overtime to cap last year’s extended run.
“It's (was) our fourth time playing them since they entered the KLAA four years ago,” DeFillippo said of this season’s Belleville win. “The first time we led at halftime, then lost. They jumped us in 2019 when we had all those sophomores and it was 21-14 in the fourth quarter last season.
“We have played them as well as anyone in our league. We gained a lot of confidence with that win. We executed, and our players played out of their minds.
“We know we have the target on our backs after that.”
After this week, Churchill has Livonia Franklin, Fordson and Livonia Stevenson left to play in the division before ending the regular season with a KLAA crossover. As the smallest school by enrollment in the KLAA and one of two teams (Franklin is the other) that does not compete in Division 1, Churchill is sure to benefit from the tough schedule as it prepares for the postseason.
Tom Markowski primarily covered high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. He also is a former correspondent and web content director for State Champs! Sports Network. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Taj Williams (7) and his Churchill teammates take the field this season. (Middle) Williams’ return to the field this fall has been a big part of his team’s 4-0 start. (Photos courtesy of the Livonia Churchill football program.)
Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com 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:
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.)