On Friday the football state finals begin at Ford Field.
By the end of Saturday night, the football season will be officially in the books with eight state champions crowned in eight different divisions once again.
Unfortunately, none of those winners will come from Livingston County. The five area teams failed to make it to the pinnacle of the high school sport. That, however, doesn’t mean this season was a failure. Not by any means.
To officially conclude this football season, let’s look at what each team can take from this year and then its prospect at making that first appearance in the state finals a year from now.
Pros: Where do you start? Brian Lemons instantly changed the culture when he took over at Brighton. His first season — after seven at Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard — was exhilarating, watching his defense crush most opponents, and the offense post more than 300 points for only the second time since 2000.
The Bulldogs recorded their third regular season with at least an 8-1 record since the start of the new millennium as well, and they made it out of the first round of the playoffs for the second time in five trips since 2005.
Joey Clifford established himself as the area’s top offensive weapon, and it wasn’t close. Senior quarterback Grant Dunatchik instantly grasped the new offense, and helped convey that to backup Cameron Tullar, who started two games when Dunatchik was injured, helping his team defeat Howell, 14-11, and Walled Lake Northern, 43-26.
The future is bright for the Bulldogs.
Cons: There are two.
The first, Brighton is losing Clifford, who had 26 total touchdowns and more than 1,800 yards in 2015, and Dunatchik, who Lemons said was essentially like having another coach on the field. There are other losses, too, including nine seniors on defense. So Brighton has its work cut out for it finding replacements for those players next year.
The other is the 45-21 loss to Grand Ledge. Grand Ledge’s Matt Bird is an excellent coach and his team was equipped with excellent talent. However, the Bulldogs will have to face many excellent teams with excellent coaches if they want to reach their goal of a state championship.
Grand Ledge had its way with Brighton’s defense in all but one quarter. And that defense loses nine pieces, including Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mike Redlinger. Brighton knows that to be elite it needs to be able to beat elite teams. Under Lemons, the Bulldogs will figure it out. But it was a sign that things are still a work in progress, despite so much success in year one.
Pros: The biggest is that the Eagles finally — finally — reversed their odd-year curse. Since reaching the playoffs in 2008 for the first time in a decade, the Eagles had followed up every odd-year season with a sub-.500 win percentage. In fact, never in the team’s history had it made the postseason in an odd year (the three times preceding 2008 being 1990, ’94 and ’98).
They also won at least a piece the KLAA West for the third time in four years under head coach Brian Savage, who took over in 2012. Like Brighton’s Brian Lemons did this year, Savage immediately led Hartland to an 8-1 regular-season record and playoff appearance.
On top of that the Eagles handed Brighton its only regular-season loss, 14-7, in a pivotal midseason tilt that allowed them to capture a piece of the division championship and go on to play for the Lakes Conference title, though they’d lose, 28-3, to Walled Lake Western.
Cons: The Eagles must replace three-year varsity starting quarterback Noah Marshall. That is going to be a tall task, though they already got started on it this year due to Marshall’s shoulder injury, which allowed backup Brad Ekonen to get some reps in some of the Eagles bigger games.
Marshall was probably the area’s second-best offensive player only to Brighton’s Joey Clifford. So his loss will definitely be felt, and is likely to change up the system given Ekonen appeared to lack the same dual-threat abilities.
The Eagles scoring difference of plus-29 was also their weakest in any playoff year. That said, their defense — which gave up its most total points since 2010 — replaced a lot of key starters, and lost one in Andy Maschke, who was sidelined at midseason by an injury.
That defense will be faced with the same task next year as Maschke and Defensive Player of the Year candidates in linebackers Aaron Laird and Alex Vydick all graduate.
There will be many questions, but if Ekonen can make some strides in the offseason and players again emerge to lead the defense, the Eagles — equipped with running back Jack Slavin — will be in position to compete again.
After all, it will be an even year.
Pros: The most obvious: A 4-0 start for the first time since 1978.
The Highlanders had their best start in 37 years behind what began as a shutdown defense, yielding only 17.8 points per game to opponents, and a powerhouse offense putting up ridiculous numbers and averaging a ridiculous 34.5 points.
Wide receiver Trevor Wetzel was posting video game numbers with quarterback Brett Chaperon. The offensive line — which had won the Fowlerville Linemen Challenge in the preseason and was shaping up to be the area’s most dominant — was creating holes for Joey Gossett and everything appeared to be going in Howell’s favor.
It had defeated Monroe, Westland Glenn, Hartland and Pinckney, three of which — with Hartland being the only exception — the Highlanders had lost to the season prior. They were playing in Week 7 for the KLAA West title against Brighton.
Even though things fell apart, Howell still made a playoff appearance after two years of missing out.
Cons: The most obvious: A 1-5 finish.
The Highlanders’ spectacular season was derailed after a close, 14-11, loss to Brighton. From a shoo-in for the playoffs, they were on the bubble entering selection Sunday night. They’d get the spot, but it was an unkind matchup with undefeated Grand Ledge, which they lost to, 34-2, to end their season the same way they started it … on a four-game streak. This time it was four straight losses.
Howell’s defense ended up giving up 237 points, its most allowed since 1989 (265).
After three straight seasons of winning a postseason game from 2008-10, Howell’s been one-and-done in its last two appearances. And it will be interesting to see how next year plays out as its losing two of its offensive playmakers with Wetzel and Chaperon both graduating.
It does, however, return talented runner and pass catcher Joey Gossett
Pros: The Pirates essentially had the reverse season of Howell.
Things couldn’t have been more miserable in the first five weeks as they accumulated an 0-5 record and were among the first teams in the state to be officially declared ineligible for the playoffs. But something clicked in those final four.
Senior quarterback Austin Staebler took the reins of the offense and suddenly the Pirates were unstoppable, scoring an average of 31.3 points per game in their last four matchups. That was highlighted by a Week 6, 38-15, demolishing of reigning KLAA West champion Grand Blanc, which knocked the Bobcats from any shot at repeating.
Sophomore quarterback Brandon Leach also made strides. He threw for 350 yards in a loss against Howell, and had he not fumbled in the red zone, the Pirates may well have won the game. With Staebler departing and Marshall, Dunatchik and Chaperon also graduating, he should be the area’s signal caller to watch next season.
Cons: The 0-5 start.
Four of those five losses were to playoff teams, and the other was to a South Lyon team that went 4-5. It’s arguable that had the Pirates been luckier, they would’ve won two of them — they lost to Plymouth by six points and Howell by five points.
So maybe it’s not all bad, but the record did look ugly, as Pinckney has now only had one season above .500 since 2001.
Furthermore, Leach was impressive at times, but at others he was still a very raw prospect.
It was perhaps most noticeable in the 52-14 blowout at the hands of Hartland. He struggled against pressure, and there was a ton of it coming from the Eagles. That clearly made him uncomfortable. Fortunately, he’ll have the offseason to continue fine-tuning his game, and no one can argue that his upside is massive.
Pros: Getting excited about a 4-5 season might seem a little silly. But given the recent history of the Gladiators — who entered 2015 having accumulated six total wins and a 6-30 record in four seasons since 2010 — what a year it was in Fowlerville.
The Glads defeated Dexter, which was expected, but then went on to beat an Eaton Rapids team that crushed them by 28 points in 2014, upset a Williamston team that had one loss and made the playoffs in seven of its last eight seasons entering the game, and beat Lakewood.
Led by quarterback Nick Semke and wide receiver Josh Nabozny, Fowlerville finished third in a CAAC White Division that housed two 10-1 teams. It was even playing on the final week of the season for a shot at the playofffs, though it lost to Lansing Waverly.
Additionally, Semke will be back to lead the offense and perhaps defense next year.
Cons: The Glads still aren’t there yet.
They earned two gigantic upsets, but were still inconsistent this season. They were blown out in four of their five losses, outscored in those four games, 211-45. They also allowed more than 45 points on three occasions, and two of those more than 50.
The 306 total points allowed is the second-most in the school’s history, according to michigan-football.com — the only other time the Gladiators giving up 300 points coming two years ago in 2013 (319).
So while things appear to be looking up, there’s still work to do in Fowlerville.