St. Mary Erases Doubts, Ends Ithaca Run
By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
DETROIT — The players and their coach insisted they were playing for their own glory, not to deprive Ithaca of further greatness.
Monroe St. Mary would've savored an MHSAA Division 6 football championship regardless of the opponent, regardless of the historical backdrop.
But when the clock expired on the Falcons' 22-12 victory over Ithaca on Friday at Ford Field, once they'd secured their first title since 1991, there was a little extra pride among the St. Mary players.
Yeah, it was pretty special to beat a team with a nation-leading 69-game winning streak and four consecutive Division 6 championships.
"At the beginning of the week, we didn't really think about that," St. Mary senior linebacker David Howey said. "The coach just kept preaching there's 48 minutes left in high school football. That's a pretty cool win, though, beating the nation's longest winning streak in high school football. It's pretty cool. When we told people that's who we were going to play, they'd doubt us, and that just fueled me even more."
There was also a bit of a revenge motive for St. Mary (13-1), which lost 45-35 in the Division 6 final when the Yellowjackets' string of MHSAA titles began in 2010.
"It makes it a little more sweet, but it's just awesome," said senior John Lako, who ran for two touchdowns and made seven tackles with a sack at linebacker. "I was actually at the game when we lost to them in 2010. Just to see they were that close, it feels like we finally wrote the end of the book."
Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook hasn't had to deliver a postgame speech to his players following a loss since a 47-16 setback to Montague in a 2009 Division 6 Semifinal. From the start of 2010, the Yellowjackets assembled a winning streak that ranks 13th all-time in national high school football history. The streak included 24 consecutive playoff victories. Ithaca was trying to tie the record of five straight MHSAA titles shared by Farmington Hills Harrison (1997-2001) and East Grand Rapids (2006-10).
Ithaca had to come from behind in its previous two games just to keep the streak alive and return to Ford Field. The Yellowjackets trailed Madison Heights Madison 27-19 heading into the fourth quarter of the Regional Final before winning 41-27.
They made a stop on fourth down from the 4-yard line with 13 seconds left to preserve a 20-16 Semifinal victory over Boyne City, which took an early 14-0 lead.
"We've had maybe more talented teams, I'm going to be honest, and that's no knock on this football team," Hessbrook said. "But I've never coached a football team that has more heart and more resiliency, and that's going back to the teams we've had in the last four or five years. I don't care what team you put out there, this team will fight you every step of the way. I couldn't be more proud. We came up short. We missed a few opportunities. We came up a few plays short. One play in the kicking game, one play here or there on offense, we win that game, and we win it going away."
Ithaca (13-1) had only three victories with a margin of fewer than 10 points during the winning streak. Missed extra points by opponents played a major role in two of those games, a 22-19 overtime victory over Montague in the 2011 Regional Final and a 21-20 victory over Montrose in a 2013 Semifinal.
Ironically, points after touchdown were critical in the outcome of Friday's championship game.
Monroe St. Mary's edge in conversions began following the first touchdown of the game, a 2-yard run by Lako that capped an opening drive that milked the first 8:15 off the clock. An off-sides penalty by Ithaca on the extra point attempt moved the ball close enough to the goal line to make a two-point attempt more feasible. Justin Carrabino ran untouched around the right side to give St. Mary's an 8-0 lead.
Ithaca tried to make up the difference following its first touchdown, an 11-yard pass from Jake Smith to Spence DeMull with 9:20 left in the second quarter, but the two-point pass fell incomplete to leave St. Mary's up 8-6.
Special teams loomed even larger with 7:11 left in the second quarter when Troy Hilkens forced a fumbled punt return. The ball popped up to Travis Vuich, who returned it 19 yards for a touchdown. Phillip Lehmann's extra point made it 15-6.
"It was a great feeling," Vuich said. "The guys did their job on the punt filling the lanes. The ball just popped right up."
Ithaca found the end zone for a second time on a 2-yard run by Smith with 33 seconds left in the first half. The extra-point attempt hit the upright, leaving the Yellowjackets down by a 15-12 margin despite matching St. Mary's two touchdowns.
"I hope that all those young people who were standing on our sideline understand what a small margin for error there is when you play for a state championship and understand how much work goes into it," Hessbrook said.
An Ithaca offense that averaged 43 points a game wouldn't score again, as St. Mary came up with huge defensive stops in the second half.
On fourth-and-one from the St. Mary 21, Ithaca was stopped in the backfield by Justin LaPlante and finished off by Darius Marks for a 1-yard loss with 2:29 left in the third quarter.
Ithaca marched to St. Mary's 19 on its next possession, but Bryce Windham (also the Falcons' quarterback) intercepted a pass after a reverse.
St. Mary's took over at its own 2-yard line with 10:19 remaining and was able to milk the clock down to 2:46 before punting. Ithaca got the ball at its own 20 for one final attempt to keep its winning and championship streaks alive. On second and 10, Lako sacked Smith for a 12-yard loss with 2:19 to go. On fourth-and-22, Marks intercepted a pass with 1:51 remaining and returned it to the 5.
Two plays later, Lako wrapped up the victory with a 3-yard touchdown run with 1:41 left.
Ithaca threw four incompletions on its final possession, and St. Mary kneeled out the clock.
"We won today because of our defense," St. Mary coach Jack Giarmo said. "Offensively, we struggled a little bit, but defensively the kids just did a fantastic job battling."
Ithaca outgained St. Mary, 262-182, but had three costly turnovers. Smith ran 18 times for 90 yards and a touchdown while completing 14 of 29 passes for 147 yards, one touchdown and one interception. DeMull caught nine passes for 108 yards and a touchdown.
Vuich made two clutch catches for first downs when St. Mary took 7:33 off the clock following Windham's interception. Vuich caught three passes for 38 yards, accounting for more than half of Windham's 71 yards on 7 for 12 passing.
LaPlante had nine tackles, including two for losses, to lead St. Mary's defense. Reeser had a game-high 12 tackles for Ithaca.
Click for full statistics.
PHOTOS: (Top) Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central players raise their first MHSAA football championship trophy since 1991 on Friday. (Middle) St. Mary defensive back Darius Marks (2) snags an interception in front of an Ithaca receiver. (Click for action photos and team photos from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
SMITH TO DEMULL FOR THE SCORE - Ithaca scores its first touchdown in the second quarter, with Jake Smith finding Spence DeMull in the end zone for the score.
FALCON FINDS GOOD FORTUNE - On its drive following the first Ithaca TD, Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central punts and a loose ball on the return finds its way into the hands of Travis Vuich, who took it 19 yards for what proved to be the winning points.
Watch the entire game and order DVDs by Clicking Here.