By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
MARQUETTE – Hunter Nowak finished his high school career Saturday at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome as arguably the most accomplished offensive star in Morrice football history.
But he’d be the first to point out that the Orioles put the finishing touch on their first perfect and championship season because of the effort on the other side of the ball as well.
Nowak capped a three-year varsity campaign rushing 39 times for 199 yards and three touchdowns and throwing for another score as Morrice broke away for a 44-16 win over Pickford to claim the 8-Player Division 1 championship – the Orioles’ first state title in this sport. They also finished 13-0.
And his defense played a big part in making that possible, locking down a Panthers offense that entered the Final averaging 54 points per game and also unbeaten.
“I told them before, going in, ‘Boys, this is your last game. Just sell out,’” Morrice senior linebacker/fullback Connor Lucas said. “’Leave it all on the field. Do not regret it.’
“When we did the (coin) toss, and they said they wanted to receive, we were actually more happy that they wanted to receive because we knew our defense could shut them down.”
Defense has not been a hallmark of the first decade of 8-player football in Michigan. But Morrice seemed to figure it out this fall.
The Orioles gave up 78 points – a mere six per game – and from mid-September through the first week of the playoffs posted six straight shutouts.
Morrice gave up a respectable 21 points per game in going 9-2 in 2017, playing a basic 4-4 scheme. But leading tackler Lucas said this season the defense rotated through about 20 formations.
Pickford’s lowest point total this fall had been 38 points in a Week 3 win over Crystal Falls Forest Park.
“They were quick, they were strong … they were aggressive,” said Pickford junior quarterback Jimmy Storey, who went over 1,000 yards rushing for the season with 92 Saturday, but completed only 4 of 17 passes. “They were really aggressive and tough, and gave us a run for our money.”
Pickford junior running back Stephen LaMothe opened the scoring with a 14-yard run only 2:39 into the game.
But Nowak followed with 45 and 4-yard touchdown runs and a 15-yard scoring pass to senior Austin Edington to take a 22-8 lead into the break. “Going into the locker room at halftime, and we were up, we could definitely tell they were kinda surprised,” Lucas said.
Nowak opened the second half with another scoring run. LaMothe – who finished with 99 yards rushing on 14 carries – broke a 60-yarder at the end of the third quarter to make the score 30-16. But Edington pulled the Orioles away with 54 and 6-yard scoring runs in the fourth quarter.
Edington finished with 122 yards rushing on 10 carries as the team ran for 317 of its 353 yards total.
“Once we started the game, started gaining a little momentum, we could see some of our run plays were working better than what we thought they (would),” Morrice coach Kendall Crockett said. “We were moving the bigger men on the other team, and Hunter just made the lanes work, and Austin, and Connor was blocking and the plays work. When you design them, and they work in a game, it’s fun to watch.”
Crockett took over the program five seasons ago when Morrice switched from 11-player, and brought to the gameplan some of the spread scheme from his time as an assistant at DeWitt. “When I took over the job in 8-man football, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he said. “I looked to some of the more experienced coaches – Rob McDaniel from Peck, Deckerville, you look to those different coaches to find out what worked for them. We tried their stuff, and that’s when we decided we had to go our own way and see what works for Morrice.
“We came up with the system we have today, and you know what – speed, especially out here, speed hurts.”
Morrice’s previous longest playoff run was to the Class D Semifinals in 1996. The Orioles went 9-2 three seasons ago but fell back to 4-5 in 2016 before starting a two-year climb to history.
“We’ve been dreaming of this since we were in third grade playing together,” Nowak said. “Our sophomore year, things didn’t go right. Last year we made the playoffs, we didn’t do too well. But we knew this year was the year to do it. We played every game super hard, went undefeated – just everything worked out.”
Pickford capped its third straight season of making the Semifinals with its first trip to a championship game. The Panthers will graduate just two of 18 players on Saturday’s roster. Crockett said he saw in the Panthers’ junior class the potential to do what his seniors accomplished this fall.
Senior Chase Warner had 12 tackles for Pickford, while Storey and junior Isaiah May both had 10. Senior Beau Dietz had 10 tackles to lead Morrice.
“We’re going to have to remember it, and work that much harder in the offseason,” Storey said. “We gotta come back next year and get it.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Morrice’s Austin Edington dives for the end zone for one of his three touchdowns Saturday at the Superior Dome. (Middle) The Orioles’ Hunter Nowak breaks past a Pickford defender. (Photos by Cara Kamps.)
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.)