By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Terry Hessbrook has sensed this level of buzz around Ithaca's football program once before.
He was a senior running back during the 1984 "dream season" when the team finished the regular season 9-0 and made the playoffs for the first time. The Yellowjackets' postseason run lasted only a week – Ithaca fell to Grand Rapids South Christian 20-0 in the first round, which in those days of shorter playoffs was the Regional Final – but the excitement was reminiscent of the attention his program is getting heading into Friday's Division 6 District Final against Hemlock.
Except this hype extends far outside the city limits of his 2,900-resident hometown. Ithaca has won 38 straight games, the fifth-longest streak in MHSAA football history, and is only three more wins from a third straight trip to the Finals at Ford Field.
“It’s been really neat to have people take a look at what we’re doing in Ithaca,” Hessbrook said. “We’re not doing anything different. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re not a bunch of geniuses or anything like that. We just have a coaching staff that works really hard and supports each other, and we don’t care who gets the credit. And the players don’t care who gets the credit.”
How much the ninth-year coach is beaming comes through the phone as he talks of his players' handling of the growing expectations or how fortunate he is to be surrounded by assistants he's been close with, in at least a few cases, for decades.
And winning makes everything more fun. The Yellowjackets get a Second Half High 5 this week as they work toward becoming just the fifth school to win three straight MHSAA titles since the first playoffs were held in 1975. The winning streak is the third-longest among those that included at least one season since the postseason was added.
Ahead of Ithaca on that consecutive wins list are Hudson (72), Morenci (44), Cheboygan (43) and New Lothrop (39). But only Cheboygan accomplished its streak completely within the playoff era, with Hudson’s coming to an end in the first MHSAA Class C Final.
Making this run more special is that half the team has been together for nearly all of it.
Hessbrook brought his players into a huddle at the start of practice this August, and as he started looking at their faces, a thought crossed his mind.
“Wow, you guys have been around for a long time,” he told them.
Ithaca’s football players haven’t been around any longer than those on any other team in Michigan. But it sure feels that way. The Yellowjackets have played in 12 playoff games over the last three years, and five seniors who moved to varsity at the start of 2010 – receiver Markes Gadlen, linebackers Tyler Gibson and Jacob Barnes and linemen Bradley Martyn and Josh Capen – have played in 38 varsity games. That’s the equivalent of more than four regular seasons. And the team's other 12 seniors all came up for the playoffs in 2010, giving them more postseason experience than perhaps any group currently playing in this state.
During that 2010 run, they felt like they were along for the ride. Last season’s championship was about seniors like Garrett Miniard and David Brown showing they could win one too after following all-state quarterback Alex Niznak’s lead the year before. Now, these seniors similarly want to be the leaders of another title run.
But Hessbrook is sure to credit one more group – the 2009 team that played in the team's first MHSAA Semifinal.
“In 2009, that group of players raised the bar, and they made it possible, although they didn’t win,” Hessbrook said. “They didn’t get to the big game. But in 2009, for one quarter (in the Semifinal), we played with Montague (which went on to finish 14-0).
“The bar has been raised. I don’t know that the goal now is to (just) get into the playoffs. I think the kids are hungry enough that they don’t want to just get in. They want to get in and make noise.”
The name statewide observers are coming to know is that of junior quarterback Travis Smith. He took over in the 2011 opener and quarterbacked the team through the 42-14 championship game win over Constantine, throwing for 299 yards – fifth-best all-time for an MHSAA championship game.
His numbers this fall say plenty – 107 completions in 175 attempts for 1,696 yards and 30 touchdowns, with only four interceptions. Smith also leads the team with 610 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. He’s 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds and already getting the college looks that came to Niznak during his senior season after he’d already committed to Central Michigan.
Total, the team is outscoring opponents on average 53-6. The defense is a little smaller but faster this fall, and is averaging exactly three turnovers per game.
Another stat helps it all make more sense. Teams submit the grade-point average for their top 11 players for academic all-state – and Ithaca’s group comes in at 3.85.
And visitors to Ithaca don’t get the feel they’re in a small town once they enter the stadium. Recent renovations included the addition of viewing platforms 15 feet above the track that put fans closer to the field than the first row of bleachers. There are new bathrooms and a larger concessions area, but the biggest blast comes from the 13 by 24-foot Jumbotron scoreboard that’s made the stadium feel more like the home of a Division II college team.
Hessbrook estimates at least 2,000 fans are showing up for home games, and similarly large crowds have followed his team on the road.
To Ithaca’s credit, the team is taking all of this in stride. It’s not that the streak isn’t a big deal – “It is what it is,” Hessbrook said – but the players just don’t talk about it too much.
“They’re really a mature group of seniors, really grounded, from great families with great parents who are very supportive of what we’re doing and just keep their kids grounded. The coaching staff does a good job keeping the kids grounded," Hessbrook said. "You’re only as good as your last game. Nobody’s going to care what you did last week or last month. And I think the players believe that.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Ithaca's Caden Kipp and Zach Allen (12) celebrate after a touchdown during last week's win over Grandville Calvin Christian. (Middle) Quarterback Travis Smith already is in the MHSAA record book for his performance during last season's Division 6 Final. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com).