Prior to the fall of 2012, the Portland Raider football program had never been past a district final.
It had been a solid program, finishing with a winning record each year since 2002 and winning seven or more games in eight of those seasons coming into this year.
But John Novara helped the program to new heights this season and became the hands down selection for Lansing State Journal’s coach of the year honors.
Portland finished with a 13-1 record, passing the previous high for wins in a season by four . The Raiders capped off a remarkable playoff run with a 12-9 win over Grand Rapids West Catholic in the Division 5 state final in Detroit.
“You worry about the kids’ nerves, but they were calm and relaxed and they knew they had played several good teams this season and they played well,” Novara said. “They were focused week after week.”
The season turned for the Raiders after a game against Lansing Catholic on Oct. 5, where they gave up a season-high 41 points and lost the CAAC White in the process.
Portland bounced back starting the next week, pounding a Division 3 semifinalist in DeWitt and allowing just less than 13 points per game in their final seven contests of the season, including five playoff games.
“The defense played strong after that Lansing Catholic game and after we won the district we said, ‘Hey, we have to set some new goals,’ ” Novara said. “We were kind of on a roll.”
Despite falling behind 28-14 in the regional final, Portland scored on a long touchdown pass and then recovered an onside kick against defending state champion and then-No. 1 Flint Powers Catholic. The Raiders rode that momentum to a 45-28 victory and announced themselves as a legitimate threat to go all the way.
The Raiders then downed Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard in the semis after being down 17-6.
“There were a couple plays that could have knocked us out of the tournament,” Novara said. “The ball bounced our way a few times and it went our way and I think you do need that in the playoffs.”
Around the mid-Michigan area, Portland football will be looked at as a state champion to start 2013, but this consistent, workmanlike program is keeping expectations the same and starting close to home before trying to tackle all challengers once again.
“We do understand we got here through a lot of hard work,” Novara said. “We’ve got to remember what got us here and keep working hard. We didn’t win the league, so that’s going to be our No. 1 goal.”