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.)
DETROIT – Isaiah Marshall took a second Sunday night to think about the interception he’d just thrown that led to Belleville taking a late lead in the Division 1 Football Final.
But just a second.
When Marshall and his Southfield Arts & Technology teammates took the field down four points with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining at Ford Field, the interception wasn’t on his mind. Neither was the raucous Belleville crowd that had awoken on the home side of the stadium.
He wasn’t thinking about stopping a three-peat or snapping a 38-game Belleville win streak. He wasn’t thinking about the talk he’d heard during the week leading up to the game, that his team was on its way to getting blown out like so many of those previous 38 opponents.
All Marshall was focused on was doing his job.
“As soon as I threw the pick, I knew what I had to do differently,” Marshall said. “I just wasn’t thinking about that last play. As soon as I threw the pick, I just thought about it on the bench, then as soon as I came out, it wasn’t on my mind at all. I just knew I had to go down the field and score.”
Like he had all night, Marshall came through when the Warriors needed him most, leading his team on a 69-yard scoring drive, finishing the final 11 with his legs for the go-ahead score in Southfield A&T’s 36-32 victory against Belleville.
His defense finished the rest, as Dorian Freeman intercepted a pass during the final seconds, sealing the first Finals title for Southfield.
“It’s special,” A&T coach Aaron Marshall said. “It’s special for the community. It’s a long time coming. All week I’ve been getting calls from guys I’ve never met just congratulating the boys on making it. We had never even made it to the championship game, let alone won one. It’s real big for the community. I’m really proud.”
To do it, the Warriors needed to overcome the team that has dominated Division 1 for the past three seasons in Belleville (13-1). The Tigers had won the past two Division 1 Finals, and hadn’t dropped a game since Sept. 10, 2021.
They entered Sunday having outscored opponents this fall by an average of 49-7. They also featured the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2025 in quarterback Bryce Underwood.
But Sunday, none of that mattered to Marshall and the Warriors (13-1). Well, except maybe the last part.
“Just a little bit,” Marshall said when asked if he was out to prove he was the state’s top quarterback. “I do think I’m the best player in the state. Me proving that tonight, and showing what I can do on the big stage shows that, I think.”
He finished the night completing 20 of 31 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns, as well as two interceptions. He also rushed for 134 yards and the go-ahead score, as well as the two-point conversion that put his team up four.
“He came out there and played like I thought he was going to play,” said Belleville star linebacker and running back Jeremiah Beasley, who has committed to Michigan. “He’s a real tough player. Since we were little, he’s always been tough. He came out there and played with all his heart, and they came out on top.”
Underwood certainly had his moments, finishing 11 for 24 for 164 yards and a touchdown to go along with one interception. He also had five rushes for 39 yards.
And A&T was certainly cognizant of what Underwood could do, especially when he got the ball back with 47 seconds to play and a chance to take the lead. But by playing coverage, they didn’t allow the Tigers to push the ball down the field, and eventually pressure from senior defensive tackle Reggie Gardner forced the throw that Freeman intercepted to clinch the game.
“My coaches just told me to spy the quarterback, and whatever he did, I would go,” Freeman said. “Then it was just right in my zone.”
A&T led for most of the game, getting a pair of rushing touchdowns from Mathias Davis during the first half, the second score giving them a 12-7 lead.
After a 31-yard field goal from Belleville’s Brayden Lane made the score 12-10, Marshall engineered an 80-yard drive over the final three minutes of the second quarter to give his team a 10-point lead at the half. He accounted for 79 of the 80 yards with either his legs or his arm, finishing it off with a 13-yard TD pass to Tashi Braceful with 13 seconds remaining in the half. Braceful finished the night with 10 catches for 152 yards.
The Warriors nearly added to that halftime lead, as well, recovering a squib kick at the Belleville 43. Marshall hit Tyjuan Esper for a 38-yard gain on the next play, but he was tackled as the first-half clock expired.
Early in the third quarter, Marshall and the Warriors did stretch their lead when he threw a 19-yard TD pass to Xavi Bowman on a 4th-and-14. DaMario Quarles’ conversion run put them up 28-10 with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.
Of course, Belleville didn’t go away.
The Tigers responded immediately with a 45-yard TD pass from Underwood to Jalen Johnson. And after stopping Marshall on a 4th-and-2 run near midfield, they needed just three plays and 30 seconds to pull within three points of the lead as Beasley scored on a 15-yard run.
On the next A&T possession, Marquis Peoples put Belleville right back in business with an interception that he returned to the 35-yard line. Beasley again cashed in three plays later, with a 22-yard TD run that gave Belleville a 33-27 lead with 4:47 remaining.
Beasley finished the night with 106 yards and the two touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s a senior ball player; he did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Belleville coach Calvin Norman said of Beasley. “He came through in the clutch. When he ran the ball, he did his thing. I have nothing but love for the young man.”
Belleville cornerback Adrian Walker made one of the more remarkable plays of the weekend late in the first quarter, intercepting a Marshall pass deep in A&T territory.
Walker got both hands on the pass, deflecting it up and toward himself as he was spinning up the field. The ball went over his head and Walker reached behind his back to make the catch at the A&T 26.
Four plays later, Belleville was on the board with a 16-yard Colbey Reed touchdown run, and the Tigers led 7-6.
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T quarterback Isaiah Marshall stretches for the game-winning touchdown during Sunday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Warriors ended the night by raising their first championship trophy. (Below) Belleville’s Adrian Walker (2) makes a stunning behind-the-back interception. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)