Football historians can debate this forever.
Tonight at Rodes Field in Kingsley – perhaps for the first time in Michigan High School Athletic Association history – three teams with perfect records will meet each other on the same football field in the same game.
Two of them, Traverse City St. Francis, and Kingsley, are playing for the right to boast of an undefeated regular season and an outright conference championship. The third team and its captain — better known as the referee crew — has already been assigned a first-round playoff game by the MHSAA.
Where they will go hasn’t been determined, but Joe Dechow’s crew knows it will referee at least two rounds this postseason. The veteran crew already has assignments from MHSAA but just like the schools, the crew is waiting for the postseason pairings to be announced Sunday.
Dechow, the crew leader and an MHSAA 41-year veteran official, will put on his white cap and be ready for the 7 p.m. kickoff tonight knowing Kingsley/St. Francis is a big, big game. Dechow’s crew members will go into kickoff confident they know at least one team that will win, just like every game they’ve done together for about the last 20 years are so.
“We always win,” Dechow jested.
But how officials define their victories is different, Dechow explained.
Taking the field with Dechow tonight will be umpire Joe Johnson, back judge Roark Pargeon, line judge Brett Spalding, head linesman Jeff Bretzke, side judge Peter Moss, and field judge Rick Zych. All seven officials worked together in the Betsie Valley Officials Association for many years and have continued together as a crew with the Northern Sport Officials Association after the two combined a few years ago.
“We don’t win or lose, but we’re a still a team,” he said. “One of the great things about working with the same guys for years and years is you know where people are going to be, and you know how they’re going to take care of things.
“It is a trust factor, ‘cuz it’s a team.”
Dechow’s team has taken the field every week for decades for the benefit of student-athletes. Moss has been an MHSAA registered official for 44 years. Spalding and Zych have been registered 36 years. Bretzke, Johnson and Paragon follow with 22, 20 and 16 years of MHSAA service, respectively. All officiate at least two sports.
Dechow was on the wrestling and football teams at Maple City Glen Lake High School. Upon graduating, he started officiating wrestling — at the age of just 18.
“That got interesting, you know, because you go from a player to a ref all at once and all these old coaches are looking at you like ‘Who are you, kid?’” Dechow recalled.
Dechow has been officiating football for 36 years and was a registered wrestling official for 15. There have been a few times he’s considered giving up the white cap that signals he’s the game’s referee. (The white cap originated to benefit television viewers for college and the National Football League.)
The referee has general oversight and control of the game. Dechow is the final authority for the score, the number of a down in case of a disagreement, and all rule interpretations when a debate arises among the other officials. He’s also the only official who wears a white hat; all the other officials wear black hats.
The “white hat” also announces all penalties and confers with the offending team’s captain, monitors the quarterback area during the game, requests the linesmen to bring the yardage chains in for first down measurements and notifies the head coach of player ejections.
Dechow was ready to put his white hat down for a while when he first attempted to give up refereeing due to family and career demands. He was planning to get out and was asked to help another crew for a “few” games.
“I was going to just do a couple of games, and then somebody else quit and I wound up getting back into it,” he said. “There was another white hat that had left just before the season started … so all of sudden I started hearing ‘Do you still have a white hat? Would you like to maybe …’
“So I did.”
Dechow’s crew has seen a lot of changes in MHSAA football during their careers. Rules to improve safety have been their favorites. They have also seen the addition of 8-player football and the use of two-way radios.
But it’s positive changes in sportsmanlike conduct among players, coaches and fans Dechow excitedly singles out.
Everyone, Dechow notes, is noticing the lower number of recruits joining the current officials in all MHSAA sports.
“More people appreciate the fact that we have to be out there, and we’re not out there to get anybody,” he said. “By and large the coaches are great.
“Of course they are emotional and of course they are pulling for their team and they’re going to argue for the right outcome for them,” he continued. “Over the last several years we have seen an absolutely marked change in people – spectators, players and coaches — all providing a lot more respect the officials.”
The crew had tonight’s game on its schedule at the beginning of the season. The guys couldn’t help looking ahead to how big a game it could be.
St. Francis coach Josh Sellers and Kingsley coach Tim Wooer probably had a better idea of how big a game it could be when they — and football enthusiasts all over Northern Michigan — likely circled it on the calendar. Kingsley won last year’s match 36-23 at Thirlby Field, the Gladiators’ home turf.
This year the Stags host with the Northern Michigan Football Conference’s Legends division championship on the line.
“Sports mean a lot to kids,” Dechow pointed out. “They meant a lot to us.
“That’s why we’re out there.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) “White hat” Joe Dechow talks things over with crew members Roark Pargeon (left) and Brett Spalding during this season’s Mancelona/LeRoy Pine River varsity football game. (Middle) Those three plus Jeff Bretzke (middle) and Joe Johnson (second from right) huddle up. (Below) Dechow and Johnson confer with Mancelona coach Dan Derrer. (Photos by Miles Postema.)
Five showdowns of undefeated teams highlight this week's Michigan high school statewide schedule as we begin our second-half buildup toward the end of the regular season.
If you're not watching in person, check out most of the matchups highlighted below, and several others, on MHSAA.tv. Check in as well with the MHSAA Scores page for all of them as they come in. (Games below are Friday unless noted.)
Bay & Thumb
Croswell-Lexington (5-0) at Almont (5-0) - Watch
Just past halfway through the Blue Water Area Conference schedule, half the teams are 3-1 or 4-0 in league play – with these the co-leaders. Croswell-Lexington hasn’t played a game closer than 19 points this fall, but did lose last year’s meeting with Almont 37-26. The Raiders, meanwhile, have won the last two weeks by seven and one point, respectively – but opened the season with three straight shutouts as the stifling defense they’ve become known for has given up only 34 points total.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lapeer (4-1) at Grand Blanc (3-2) - Watch, Linden (4-1) at Fenton (4-1) - Watch, Birch Run (4-1) at Freeland (5-0) - Watch, Madison Heights Lamphere (4-1) at Marine City (4-1).
Westland John Glenn (5-0) at Belleville (5-0) - Watch
Belleville’s 42-3 victory over Livonia Franklin last week was the team’s 30th straight, and the Tigers now own the state’s longest active winning streak with Powers North Central’s coming to an end at 41 on the same night. Belleville’s next challenger is John Glenn, which under second-year coach Jason Mensing has as many victories this fall as the last two combined and has nearly guaranteed its first winning season since 2014. Mensing guided his former team Ottawa Lake Whiteford through several memorable moments, and this will be the Rockets’ biggest so far under his leadership.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Gibraltar Carlson (4-1) at Trenton (4-1) - Watch, Romeo (3-2) at Macomb Dakota (4-1) - Watch, Lake Orion (5-0) at Rochester Adams (3-2) - Watch, Marine City Cardinal Mooney (3-2) at Clarkston Everest Collegiate (3-2) - Watch.
Goodrich (5-0) at Corunna (5-0) - Watch
The winner of this matchup clinches a share of the Flint Metro League Stars championship, similar to last season when Goodrich won the league and Corunna was second thanks to the Martians’ 42-7 win in their Week 5 matchup. Both arguably have been even better this fall. Goodrich has handed the only losses this season to Frankenmuth and Linden, and Corunna has given up only 31 points this season and no more than 17 in a game while scoring at least 38 every time out.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Evart (4-1) at Beal City (5-0) - Watch, Grand Ledge (5-0) at DeWitt (2-2) - Watch, Fowler (5-0) at Pewamo-Westphalia (4-1) - Watch, Montrose (4-1) at New Lothrop (4-1) - Watch.
Northern Lower Peninsula
Charlevoix (4-1) at Elk Rapids (2-3)
There’s more riding here than the initial glance my indicate. Charlevoix, with a win, would clinch a share of the Northern Michigan Football Conference Leaders title – its first since 2020 and after finishing second to Boyne City both of the past two seasons. The Rayders haven’t had a game closer than 13 points since falling to Traverse City St. Francis by one in their season opener. Elk Rapids got off to a tough start but has won two straight – both in shutouts – and is looking for its first win over Charlevoix since 2018.
Southeast & Border
Jackson (4-1) at Adrian (4-1) - Watch
Jackson has a chance to set up a Week 7 winner-take-all matchup with Chelsea for the Southeastern Conference White championship – a nice jump after finishing third last season. The Vikings haven’t defeated Chelsea since 2018 but lost by a respectable 17-0 last fall. But they can’t overlook Adrian, still enjoying its best season since 2016 despite falling to Chelsea 28-18 last week. The Maples would love to hand Jackson a loss tonight and cheer for the Vikings next week with a title share possible.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Michigan Center (4-1) at Grass Lake (4-1) - Watch, Flat Rock (4-1) at Milan (3-2) - Watch, Ann Arbor Huron (3-2) at Saline (5-0) - Watch, Hudson (5-0) at Blissfield (3-2) - Watch.
Parma Western (5-0) at Battle Creek Harper Creek (4-1)
We’re halfway through the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference schedule, and this has emerged as an important matchup with Parma Western tied with Hastings for first and Harper Creek only a game back after falling to the Saxons 34-6 last week. The Beavers struggled to 3-6 a year ago but already have avenged 2022 losses to Battle Creek Lakeview, Battle Creek Central and Marshall – and Western defeated them 34-0 last season before Harper Creek went 2-1 to finish the fall. Western’s defense is a notable strength again, giving up only 37 points total this season despite taking on Dearborn Divine Child and Detroit Country Day over the first two weeks.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Paw Paw (5-0) at Edwardsburg (3-2) - Watch, Constantine (4-1) at Allegan (4-1) - Watch, St. Joseph (3-2) at Portage Northern (5-0) - Watch, Muskegon Catholic Central (3-2) at Schoolcraft (4-1) - Watch.
Gladstone (4-1) at Menominee (5-0)
This is the first of three games that will tell a lot about Menominee’s season as the Maroons enter this stretch alone atop the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper at 4-0 but with Gladstone, Week 7 opponent Negaunee and Week 8 opponent Kingsford all 3-1 in league play. While this is a new conference for the Maroons this season, they have plenty of history with Gladstone as both came from the Great Northern Conference – and Menominee had won three straight in the series before Gladstone’s 28-6 victory last fall. Gladstone’s lone defeat this year came Week 3 to Kingsford, 35-12.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Maple City Glen Lake (3-2) at Sault Ste. Marie (3-2) - Watch, Manistique (3-2) at Iron Mountain (5-0) - Watch, Marquette (2-2) at Escanaba (1-4) - Watch, Houghton (2-3) at Calumet (1-4) - Watch.
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (4-1) at East Grand Rapids (5-0)
We’ve been watching East Grand Rapids’ rejuvenation this fall with this among games circled for special attention, and Forest Hills Central’s 15-14 loss to Byron Center last week hardly lessens the intrigue. The Rangers are still among favorites statewide in Division 3, ranked No. 2, and East Grand Rapids is right behind them this week at No. 3 (while Byron Center is No. 2 in Division 2). The Ottawa-Kent Conference White title won’t be decided with this matchup, but it surely will be impacted – and the Rangers have defeated EGR all three times they’ve met since the Pioneers rejoined the division in 2020.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Allendale (5-0) at Spring Lake (4-1), Lowell (4-1) at Byron Center (5-0), Caledonia (4-1) at Hudsonville (4-1) - Watch, Zeeland East (4-1) at Muskegon (3-2).
Mendon (5-0) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (5-0) - Watch
Movement on the overall 8-player enrollment list have made this a matchup we’ll see just this once this fall, as Mendon – last year’s Division 2 runner-up – has moved to Division 1 and is ranked No. 2, while Lenawee Christian is top-ranked in Division 2 after winning Division 1 titles in 2020 and 2021 and reaching a Regional Final last year. Still, many 8-player eyes will be watching. The Cougars have given up just 32 points this season and no more than 12 in a game, and that defense should be part of the key matchup within the matchup because Mendon is scoring 52 per contest and coming off an 80-point performance.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Carson City-Crystal (5-0) at Coleman (4-1) - Watch, Brown City (5-0) at Mayville (5-0) - Watch, St. Ignace (5-0) at Newberry (4-1), Norway (4-1) at Ontonagon (4-1) - Watch.
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PHOTO Muskegon Catholic Central and Orchard View players reach to get a hand on the ball during their meeting this season. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)