Trojans Find Familiar Success in 8-Player

October 5, 2016

By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half

Football players, coaches and fans all know what it takes to produce winning teams: score a lot of points, don’t give up many, run, pass, catch and tackle.

While 11-player football is the traditional way to play the game, declining school enrollments have forced numerous schools to adjust if they want to keep offering the sport. They are learning that 8-player football requires the same things to be successful.

Crystal Falls Forest Park for decades dominated the ranks of Class D, which later became Division 8. The Trojans used a pretty simple game plan: find a stud running back, hitch their wagon to his burly shoulders and overpower any team which happened to be on the field.

Forest Park claimed the initial two Class D championships when the playoffs began in 1975 and added another title in 2007. The Trojans also won 23 Great Western Conference crowns.

But enrollment kept dropping, as it has throughout the state, and a year ago Forest Park officials decided to join the movement to 8-player football. There are 51 teams at that level this year, and nearby Felch North Dickinson, another long-time small-school power, will join the mix in 2017.

The decision was controversial when it was accepted by a 4-2 board of education vote last October, and many staunch Forest Park fans were aghast. But that apparently has cooled down, no doubt helped by a 5-1 start to this initial season.

“I don’t hear the griping of people against it,” said veteran coach and former Forest Park player Dave Graff. “The people in the know realize where our numbers are. That type of (negative) talk has gone by the wayside.

“We still have traditionalists out there who think 8-man is not football. This program is steeped in tradition, and you don’t get acceptance in one year’s time.”

The Trojans suit up 22 players for each varsity game, but nine are freshmen and sophomores who would be playing junior varsity football if Forest Park offered that level. “If we had jayvees we would not be able to function as a varsity unit,” Graff said.

The school enrollment is about 150 students this year, and Graff said he has been hearing it may drop by about 25-30 students next year. Forest Park has not fielded a full jayvee schedule for the past six years.

Even more astounding is this observation from Bill Santilli, the school’s athletic director since Aug. 1 and a former all-state running back and long-time coach: “I really fear that in the next two years Forest Park will not have a football program.”

Wow … this tradition-laden, statewide power on the threshold of no football?

Santilli added: “I’m fearful in the sense that four freshmen are playing, and we lose eight seniors. You do the math.”

He said Graff and Forest Park are being proactive and have worked with their Western Eight Conference to institute a junior high level of 8-player football and are also trying to get a grade 5-6 program started, possibly in flag football.

The school’s youth program has stayed with the 11-player game, and 2015 8-player MHSAA champion Powers North Central has kept an 11-player junior varsity. “It just doesn’t seem to be working because we’re all struggling with numbers there also,” said Santilli.

To give football a chance to hang around, he said, “We have to focus our attention on that youth level. We’re trying to build interest.”

While declining enrollment is forcing the switch to 8-player football, Santilli said, “Declining participation is probably more of a factor than it is enrollment. There are athletes in our school that in my opinion would make our football team better, but for some reason have not elected to play.”

Noting the game “nationwide is under attack,” he said it is safer now than ever because of increased improvement in equipment and extensive stress on safety. “Changes being made at every level are making the game as safe as it can be,” Santilli added.

Graff and Santilli, as players and coaches, have seen the values the sport provides.

“What are you trying to teach in football? We’re trying to teach work ethic, morals, not doing what is wrong when people aren’t watching, trying to teach character,” Graff said. “We are trying to raise people to be successful in our society and improve our society. We stress doing it right, we stress not missing the opportunity to do something good, the little things in life.

“Football is not just a rough sport. There are such great opportunities to teach things in life like discipline, teamwork, effort, enthusiasm, mental toughness, making good people.”

Santilli pointed out those lessons occur in both the 11-player game and the 8-player game. “It is still football. I’ve seen some great blocks and tackles and collisions out there,” said Santilli, who still resembles the powerful fullback who led the Trojans to their first Class D title in 1975 en route to a distinctive U.P. Sports Hall of Fame playing and coaching career.

“I don’t see that any different with 8-man; there are just fewer players.”

Santilli said some of his former teammates who now have youngsters playing have been hard to convince the switch to 8-player was necessary. “It is taking them a little bit longer to adapt to the change,” he said.

But, he said, “The players have slowly bought into the change. For them it is still the same game. There is the same excitement with the players, the same intensity when they take the field. They are just ready and waiting for the competition.”

Santilli, with his strong and successful background with the Trojans, might be the ideal observer of the switch, agreeing the game still requires athletes to make plays to stop other athletes.

“It is a different technique, a different style player more geared to open field situations (on both sides of the ball). Dave is still bringing Forest Park style football into his coaching, giving the ball to (Dan) Nocerini and powering it right at you.”

Nocerini is the latest standout back in a string of stars from Santilli and Graff who also included Mark Flood, Lee Graff, Dan Lato, Gerard Valesano and Dean Arcand. In just six games this season, the 6-foot-2, 217-pound senior has rushed for 1,186 yards and 20 touchdowns, highlighted by an opening-game 414 yards rushing and seven TDs.

“It is definitely a lot more open than I expected,” Nocerini said after that explosive opener at Rapid River. “Instead of beating a safety or a corner, you just have to beat one guy (downfield).”

He also said the players “have moved on. Everybody likes football; you just put your helmet on and go play.”

The acceptance of 8-player has been easier because the Trojans are as powerful as ever, losing only to North Central 60-42 in Week 2. They are averaging 56.3 points per game and allowing 28.3.

“People will see we have to go 8-man. There isn’t a choice,” Graff said. “We as coaches have come to grips with that ,and I think the community is coming to grips with it. The tradition is always there.”

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 [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.

PHOTOS: (Top) Dan Nocerini of Crystal Falls Forest Park barges through a huge hole for a four-yard touchdown against Rapid River defenders David Johnson, left, and Gavin Harris (55) in their season opener. (Middle) Parker Sundell finds some running room after getting around Rockets defender Levi Miller. (Below) Roy Hagglund of Crystal Falls Forest Park reaches for a pass as Austin Wicklund of Rapid River defends. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)

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.)