By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
The MHSAA 8-Player Finals return to where they got their start Saturday, with two champions to be awarded for the first time.
Saturday’s games will be played at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome, which hosted the first MHSAA 8-Player Final in 2011. The 8-Player Playoffs also moved from one to two divisions this year, and Central Lake, Crystal Falls Forest Park and Portland St. Patrick all are seeking their first 8-player championships – while Central Lake will play 2012 champ Deckerville looking to win its first MHSAA title ever in the sport.
Both games will be broadcast live on the FOX Sports Detroit Facebook page and replayed on FOX Sports Detroit’s primary channel on Nov. 21 – Division 1 at 8 p.m. and Division 2 at 11 p.m. Audio of both games will be streamed live on MHSAANetwork.com.
Below is a look at all four finalists. Statistics are through Semifinals unless noted. The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
Record: 12-0, No. 1
Coach: Rob Heeke, seventh season (41-30)
League finish: First in Midwest Central Michigan Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Best wins: 54-20 over No. 7 Stephenson in the Semifinal, 58-26 (Regional Final) and 44-14 over No. 10 Suttons Bay, 36-14 (Pre-Regional) and 64-38 over No. 15 Mesick, 42-28 over Division 2 No. 2 Onekama.
Players to watch: QB/DB Gavin Mortensen, 5-11/160, sr. (1,062 yards/12 TDs rushing, 680 yards/18 TDs passing); TE/DB Jayce Hoogerhyde, 6-2/145, sr. (223 yards/8 TDs receiving, 49 tackles); RB/DB Skyler Spangler, 6-0/160, jr. (1,652 yards/26 TDs rushing, 272 yards/7 TDs receiving); RB/LB Grant Papineau, 6-3/210, jr. (1,886 yards/25 TDs rushing, 95 tackles).
Outlook: Central Lake has shined in its first season of 8-player football, improving from 2-7 in its final season of 11-player a year ago. Onekama came closest to catching the Trojans, losing by 14 in the game Week 8 that decided the league championship. It’s no secret how Central Lake succeeds; led by three 1,000-yard rushers, the Trojans have run for nearly 4,900 yards at 8.3 per carry. Defensively Papineau is a stopper, but Mortensen and Hoogerhyde are impressive pass defenders with 13 and 15 pass break-ups, respectively. Mortensen also has six interceptions.
Record: 11-1, No. 3
Coach: Bill Brown, 25th season (201-71)
League finish: First in North Central Thumb League Stars
Championship history: 8-Player champion 2012, runner-up 2016.
Best wins: 52-18 over No. 5 Bellevue in the Semifinal, 38-0 over No. 4 Morrice in the Regional Final, 66-28 (Pre-Regional) and 42-8 over No. 12 Mayville, 20-14 over No. 6 Kingston, 52-0 over No. 16 Lawrence.
Players to watch: QB/DB Isaac Keinath, 5-10/155, soph. (660 yards/15 TDs passing); TB/DB Kenton Bowerman, 5-6/150, sr. (971 yards/14 TDs rushing, 8 interceptions); TE/LB/P Wyatt Janowiak, 6-4/255, sr. (288 yards/6 TDs receiving); TB/DB Cruz Ibarra, 5-10/150, jr. (1,430 yards/20 TDs rushing).
Outlook: A new cast of stars has emerged after most of last year’s graduated, and Bowerman stepped up even more last week scoring four touchdowns with leading rusher Ibarra reportedly out with an injury. Deckerville’s only loss this season was by a point to Morrice in Week 6, and was avenged with a 38-point shutout win in the Regional Final. Rival Kingston was the only other opponent to get closer than 20 points to catching the Eagles – despite a regular-season schedule that featured seven playoff teams. Senior Zachary Ostrowski has six catches as the team’s third-leading receiver – and five interceptions as its second-leading pass defender.
CRYSTAL FALLS FOREST PARK
Record: 9-2, No. 6
Coach: Dave Graff, fourth season (35-10)
League finish: Second in Western Eight Conference
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2007), 10 runner-up finishes.
Best wins: 36-34 over No. 1 Pickford in the Semifinal, 62-20 over No. 9 Engadine in the Regional Final, 20-6 (Pre-Regional) and 66-58 over No. 7 Powers North Central, 52-38 over Division 1 No. 13 Ontonagon.
Players to watch: RB/LB Connor Bortolini, 5-8/150, sr. (1,749 yards/20 TDs rushing); QB Tommy Peltoma, 6-1/180, soph. (666 yards/10 TDs passing); RB/DE Peter Ropiak, 6-0/185, sr. (863 yards/12 TDs rushing); RB/DB Calvin Post, 5-8/170, soph. (765 yards/9 TDs rushing, 4 interceptions).
Outlook: Forest Park is one of the most successful programs in MHSAA history, especially among smaller schools – it played in the Division 8 Final six straight seasons from 2004-09. The Trojans moved to 8-player last season and might have been the second or third-best team in Michigan, but shared a league and playoff path with eventual repeat champion Powers North Central and lost to the Jets in the Regional Final. Forest Park opened this season 1-2, but hasn’t been defeated since falling to Division 1 semifinalist Stephenson in Week 3. Bortolini took over this fall as the main ball carrier after the Trojans graduated a 2,400-yard rusher, and he’s carried on the program’s tradition of productive backs.
PORTLAND ST. PATRICK
Record: 11-1, No. 3
Coach: Patrick Russman, 11th season (69-42)
League finish: First in Central Michigan 8-Man Conference
Championship history: 11-Player Class D champion 1992, runner-up 1997 and 1991.
Best wins: 33-14 over No. 5 Kinde-North Huron in the Semifinal, 50-0 over No. 8 Flint International Academy in the Regional Final, 44-6 over No. 13 North Adams-Jerome in the Pre-Regional, 24-8 over No. 10 Marion, 38-22 over Division 1 No. 14 Webberville.
Players to watch: QB/DB Tanner Lawson, 6-3/165, jr. (1,093 yards/20 TDs passing); RB/LB Isaiah Smith, 5-10/190, sr. (359 yards/7 TDs rushing); RB/DL Ned Smith, 5-10/160, soph (779 yards/8 TDs rushing); WR/DB Will Simon, 6-2/170, sr. (395 yards/8TDs receiving). (Statistics through nine games plus one forfeit win.).
Outlook: St. Patrick also was one of the state’s top 11-player small-school programs through the 1990s and has been on the verge of playing for an 8-player championship since switching formats in 2012 – and making the Semifinals that first season. The only blemish on this season’s record was a Week 4 loss to eventual Division 1 semifinalist Bellevue, and no other opponent has gotten closer than 16 points. Junior linebacker Paul Cook is among those pacing a defense that has given up only 12.7 points per game.