McCabe: New division for Ithaca may make title run more difficult

Ithaca head coach Terry Hessbrook, shown here surrounded by the 2013 Yellowjackets, is the star of the documentary, “Ithaca: The Climb.”

Ithaca head coach Terry Hessbrook, shown here surrounded by the 2013 Yellowjackets, is the star of the documentary, “Ithaca: The Climb.”

In the history of Michigan high school football, only two schools can claim a 100-game stretch in which they won 97 games — Hudson and Ithaca.

Hudson’s winning ways began in 1968 and stretched through the mid-1970s. Ithaca began its 100-game stretch in 2009 and is still going strong.

Ithaca’s 97-3 record is vastly more impressive because only two of Hudson’s 100 games were playoff games, whereas Ithaca has had 34 playoff games among its last 100.

“The tough thing about the playoffs is everybody’s good. That’s what stinks,” Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said, laughing. “That’s what makes it so tough.”

Though Hessbrook is proud of the 97-3 record, he drops down to a lower level to point to something about the Ithaca program he finds truly amazing.

“Our JV football record in the last 13 years is 98-12-3, with six of those losses coming in the same season (2013),” he said. “Now think about it. We take their best players every year. For several years we’ve taken up multiple (sophomores) up to the varsity. That might be a more remarkable feat than what the varsity’s done.”

The varsity has much to be proud of, winning five of the last six Division 6 state championships and holding the state’s longest current winning streak — 22 games.

But there is a possibility Ithaca won’t have the opportunity to defend its latest D-6 crown. Though the actual divisions will not be determined until the 256-team playoff field is set next Sunday, it appears the Yellowjackets will find themselves in Division 5, where they are currently ranked No. 4.

That will make winning another state title significantly more difficult, especially considering Ithaca’s overall youth. Ithaca starts nine underclassmen on offense and seven on defense, but don’t think these kids don’t expect to win come playoff time.

“Absolutely, I think it’s an expectation,” Hessbrook said. “You’re going to work hard. You’re going to get your opportunity, and when your opportunity comes we expect you to go in and play well. It starts at an early age. We’re in a situation now where our kids go on the field and expect to win. Now, they might not always win, but they expect to, and I think that mind-set is really important.”

The perfect example of a player who waited his turn and is making the most of it is senior defensive lineman Tristan Leiter, a first-year starter.

“He’s changed positions multiple times,” Hessbrook said. “He’s played quarterback. He’s played running back. He’s played linebacker. He’s moved to our offensive line after being a running back this year. He’s a kid that’s worked really hard in the weight room. He’s gained a lot of muscle, a lot of weight. It’s good to see that he’s having a really good year.”

One of the reason the Yellowjackets are having another really good year is junior kicker Adam Culp, who has had more than 40 kickoffs sail into the end zone, meaning the opposition must go 80 yards to score.

“That is huge,” Hessbrook said. “Instead of giving the team the ball at the 40 or the 45 and flipping the field on you, if they go three-and-out, we’re getting the ball at the 50.”

Junior quarterback Joey Bentley has done an excellent job running Ithaca’s spread offense. A year ago, he was a varsity receiver and defensive back.

“He’s been really good,” Hessbrook said. “He’s a special kid. He’s got great feet, makes good decisions.”

Good decisions are something Hessbrook specializes in, especially when it comes to Ithaca’s total program, in which every team runs the same offense as the varsity.

By the way, Ithaca’s eighth-grade team, seventh-grade team and sixth-grade team are all undefeated.

“It’s not always easy, but credit our youth coaches for saying: ‘This is what he’s running, this is what we better run,’ ” Hessbrook said. “It’s been working, obviously. I don’t do this alone. There’s no secret behind our success: Surround yourself with great people and stay out of the way.”

Prep Bowl matchups

The Prep Bowl will close the state’s regular season Saturday at Ford Field, with Detroit Loyola playing Dearborn Divine Child at 1, Cranbrook playing Waterford Our Lady of Lakes at 4, and Novi Detroit Catholic Central versus Orchard Lake St. Mary’s at 7.

The CC-St. Mary’s game will have added importance because two-time defending Division 3 state champ St. Mary’s is 5-3 and lost to CC, 28-7, in Week 7. Another loss would make the Eaglets 5-4, meaning they will have to have a high enough playoff point average to be one of the 5-4 teams to be taken as an additional qualifier after the teams with six or more victories are in the field. As of now it is difficult to determine how many 5-4 teams will be added to the field.

Contact Mick McCabe: 313-223-4744 or Follow him on Twitter @mickmccabe1.


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