By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Michigan high school football players, if they’re most fortunate and their teams uncommonly successful, can play up to 20 playoff games during their careers.
Saturday morning at Ford Field, Ishpeming seniors Ozzy Corp and Thomas Finegan joined that exclusive club. And with membership came a few lessons available to those who have experienced two MHSAA championships and a runner-up finish.
Don’t get frazzled when trailing by two touchdowns early. Don’t be fazed when a record-setting running back is galloping at you play after play after play.
And above all else, don’t forget a game has two halves – and their team tends to own the second one.
Despite trailing into the fourth quarter and failing to slow Pewamo-Westphalia’s Jared Smith over the first two, the Hematites stayed calm – and came back for a 22-16 win to clinch their third Division 7 championship in four seasons.
“We’re a second-half team. In the fourth quarter, we get tired, but we know how to fight through it, and I feel like that’s our advantage,” said Corp, the team’s starting quarterback the last two seasons. “We know how to face adversity. When things don’t step our way, we know how to fight back and stand right back up.”
This Ishpeming four-season has run included championship game wins twice over Detroit Loyola and now P-W, to go with a loss to Loyola in last season’s MHSAA Final. The Hematites were a combined 13-0 this fall and 52-2 over the last four seasons, losing only to Loyola last year and rival Negaunee midway through 2012.
Those are some incredibly impressive numbers – and would have been only a little less impressive if the numbers from Saturday’s first half would’ve stood up over the entire game.
Pewamo-Westphalia junior running back Jared Smith, who finished this season with single-season records of 3,245 yards and 53 touchdowns rushing, had 112 and his lone score by halftime as the Pirates (13-1) held on to a 16-6 lead after scoring the game’s first two touchdowns and running 20 of the first 27 offensive plays. P-W’s first possession ended with a turnover on downs at Ishpeming’s 1-yard line after senior defensive end Luke Kuliu came up with a goal line stop.
“We didn’t have an answer,” Ishpeming coach Jeff Olson said of Smith. “We worked hard at stopping the cut back, and he got the cut back. We worked hard on stopping him from getting the outside; he got the outside. When he gets one on one, he’s extremely difficult to tackle.”
But not impossible to stop after all, as Ishpeming showed during the second half.
The Hematites picked up momentum with a 13-play drive that took up half of the second quarter before Corp scored his team’s first points with 2:41 to go in the second quarter. They carried it through the third quarter as both teams resorted to ramming their best runner back and forth against each other – Smith at times taking direct snaps for P-W and Corp blasting ahead from the shotgun for Ishpeming.
But the results were sharply different from the first half. Ishpeming gained 135 of its 211 yards during the third and fourth quarters as Corp added touchdown runs seven minutes into the second half and with 3:52 to play – the final score coming after a drive of 14 plays over nearly 8 minutes.
P-W managed only three first downs and 43 yards over the final two quarters, as Smith was contained to 37 yards rushing on eight carries. Ishpeming held onto the ball for 15 minutes and 19 seconds total in the second half to the Pirates’ 8:41 – controlling tempo a lot like P-W during the first quarter and a half.
“Because it’s our gameplan too,” Olson said. “When you’ve got two teams, something’s gotta budge.
“In the first half they were winning the line of scrimmage. I think we threw a couple of passes to try to loosen them up a little bit, back them up. But I think we did wear them down. I could see them breathing hard in the fourth quarter, definitely that last drive.”
P-W did have one chance to tie after taking over the ball at the 50 with 3:42 to play. The Pirates drove to Ishpeming’s 32-yard line, but with less than a minute remaining had to go to the pass for only the fourth and fifth times on the day. Both were incomplete – the last knocked away like a basketball blocked shot in front of the end zone by the 6-foot-5 Corp.
He ran 32 times for 128 yards and three scores after gaining only 33 yards on the ground during the first half. He also completed 6 of 11 passes for 77 yards and led the defense with 10 tackles. Senior defensive back Nick Comment had nine tackles.
P-W sophomore quarterback Jimmy Lehman did connect on a 50-yard touchdown pass to sophomore tight end Bryce Thelen during the first half. Senior linebacker Nate Jandernoa led the Pirates with nine tackles as they made their second appearance at Ford Field to go with a runner-up finish in Division 7 in 2011.
P-W will graduate seniors who filled only seven starting positions Saturday. A large group of expected returnees will play to get back to Detroit to take advantage of the knowledge they gained facing the most experienced tournament team in the state.
“It’s big for us to come in here, for our guys to get a look at what it’s like,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back next year, so hopefully we’re coming right back with experience. We played a pretty good game, but next year we’ll know exactly what to expect.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ishpeming quarterback Ozzy Corp reaches across the goal line for one of his three touchdowns Saturday. (Middle) Ishpeming running back Isaac Olson charges ahead through an opening in the Pewamo-Westphalia defense.
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.)