Prep football playoff preview: No. 1 Cass Tech powers into postseason

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Lew Nichols of Detroit Cass Tech runs for a touchdown in the PSL championship game against Detroit King.

Detroit Cass Tech coach Thomas Wilcher has his team playing at a high level heading into the state playoffs, coming off a dominating 42-8 rout of a talented Detroit King team in the PSL championship game Friday night.

Pre-district matchups were announced Sunday, and Division 1 is loaded with strong teams, including MAC Red champion Chippewa Valley, KLAA champion Belleville, East Kentwood, Saline and defending state champion Clarkston, the OAA Red champ.

Cass Tech won the Division 1 state championship in 2016 with a 14-0 record before slipping to 9-3 last season, falling to West Bloomfield in the state semifinals.

Cass Tech’s defense is fast and physical, allowing just 42 points this season, including 15 during the last six games while posting four shutouts.

More: Detroit News final prep football rankings

More: Michigan high school football playoff pairings

Cass Tech (9-0), ranked No. 1 by The Detroit News, has averaged 41.3 points, led by the two-headed monster in running backs Jaren Mangham (Colorado) and Lew Nichols (Central Michigan), along with a tremendous athlete at quarterback in Jalen Graham, a Purdue commit who displays a strong arm and has multiple weapons to work with, including receivers Kyron McKinnie-Harper (Central Michigan), Jevin Swanigan and Noah Stamps-Freeman.

“I think we have a balance right now, the thing that’s most impressive to me is the way the defense is flowing, the pursuit of the defense,” Wilcher said. “We just have to keep grinding.”

Mangham predicts a state title for Cass Tech.

“Graham is a great leader, runs with a lot of heart," he said. "The offensive line has been playing great, opening massive holes for us and we’re breaking a lot of big runs. I think we’re going to win a state championship."

Cass Tech piled up nearly 250 yards on the ground in the PSL title game. On defense, linebacker James Ester, who has an offer from Memphis, forced two fumbles.

At Chippewa Valley, Scott Merchant has arguably his most talented team in his 10 years. He has the luxury of having a three-year starter at quarterback in Tommy Schuster, Central Michigan-bound receiver/cornerback David Ellis, Michigan State-bound linebacker/tight end Marcel Lewis, and running backs Ja’Von Kimpson (Miami of Ohio), Andre Chenault and Myren Harris.

Schuster has set Chippewa Valley career records for passing yards (5,200 yards) and TD passes (61), completing 63 percent of his passes. He has completed 65 percent this season for 1,190 yards and 20 TDs with just one interception.

No. 2 Chippewa Valley proved it could get the job done both at home and on the road, traveling to earn victories at Saline (31-26), at Utica Eisenhower (45-24), at Macomb Dakota (24-17) and at Romeo (41-34) to gain its first unbeaten regular season since 1975.

Merchant has led Chippewa Valley to regional final appearances in 2014 and 2017, both times losing to Cass Tech.

No. 4 Belleville has some of the top college prospects in the state, including future MSU players Devontae Dobbs, an offensive tackle, and Julian Barnett, a receiver/cornerback. But it certainly doesn’t have the history of postseason success, winning its first state playoff game in 15 years last season before a district final loss to Canton.

Belleville now has a veteran quarterback in sophomore Christian Dhue-Reid, who has thrown for 2,300 yards and 28 TDs (6 INTs). 

Belleville’s defense showed it is ready for postseason play, limiting Brighton dual-threat quarterback Will Jontz to 54 yards on 16 carries after he had rushed for 275 yards and six TDs in the previous two games, a 34-31 season-opening loss to Belleville in 2017 and a season-opening 40-35 loss this year.

Belleville’s defense is led by linemen Tyrece Woods (Michigan) and Jalen Hunt (Iowa), linebacker Marvin Ham (Boston College) and junior cornerback Andre Seldon (Michigan).

Defending champion: Clarkston

Favorite: Detroit Cass Tech

Contender: Clinton Township Chippewa Valley

Darkhorse: Belleville

State final prediction: Cass Tech over Clarkston

Toughest district: District 1 in Region 4 with MAC Red champion Chippewa Valley facing Utica Eisenhower and Romeo going up against Macomb Dakota. Dakota defeated Romeo 37-30 in overtime in Week No. 7.

Warren De La Salle football head coach Mike Giannone is swarmed by his team as he hoists the championship trophy for defeating Detroit Catholic Central int he Catholic League Prep Bowl AB Division Championship.

Division 2

Oak Park coach Greg Carter feels his team could have won the state title last year and will now get a second chance to get to Ford Field.

Carter has won state championships at Detroit DePorres (1995, ’96, 2003) and guided Inkster (2008, ’09) to state title game appearances as well. However, he is still looking to get No. 6 Oak Park to the state title game.

Oak Park has faced a challenging schedule, defeating defending Division 1 state champion Clarkston (21-14) last Friday, Utica Eisenhower (31-13), Birmingham Groves (13-7) and Farmington Hills Harrison (23-15), with its lone loss coming against Division 1 state runnerup West Bloomfield (27-21).

Oak Park has a balanced attack with Ohio State-bound Dwan Mathis at quarterback, a 1,000-yard running back in Phillip Stewart and a big target in 6-6 junior Maliq Carr.

Mathis has time to work behind a line anchored by five-star junior tackle Justin Rogers. Oak Park’s defense is led by Rogers and junior cornerback Enzo Jennings.

If there’s any team that has faced a schedule as challenging as Oak Park’s, it would have to be No. 7 Muskegon Mona Shores, which opened the season with a win over East Kentwood (48-38), going on to beat Rockford (33-14) and Jenison (49-42), then scoring 49 first-half points Friday in a 57-38 win over Fruitport with its lone loss coming to Division 3 defending state champion Muskegon (55-35).

Mona Shores will need a healthy running back in Sincere Dent, a physical 5-11, 215-pound senior who rushed for 223 yards and five TDs against East Kentwood and 232 yards and three TDs when Mona Shores won at Rockford for the first time since 1990, also getting in on 10 tackles while intercepting a pass and blocking a field goal. He has 933 yards on 96 carries and 17 TDs.

“Sincere Dent is back this week," said Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak. "He could’ve went last week, but we just wanted to rest and make sure he was 100 percent for the playoffs."

Junior quarterback Caden Broersma (1,472 passing yards, 12 TDs, 517 yards rushing, 12 TDs) and receiver James Gilbert (46 receptions, 1,052 yards, 9 TDs) have also had outstanding seasons for Mona Shores.

And don’t forget Warren De La Salle, which won the Catholic League championship Saturday night at Ford Field with a convincing 24-6 victory over Detroit Catholic Central, avenging a loss to CC the previous week.

No. 15 De La Salle has a defense led by cornerback Josh DeBerry and linebackers Jacob Dobbs and Devin Campbell.

Defending champion: Warren De La Salle

Favorite: Oak Park

Contender: Muskegon Mona Shores

Darkhorse: Warren De La Salle

State final prediction: Oak Park over Mona Shores

Toughest district: District 1 in Region 3 with No. 6 Oak Park and No. 15 Warren De La Salle possibly headed for a district final showdown.

Dominick Polidore-Hannah of Detroit King tries to avoid a tackle in the PSL title game.

Division 3

Watch out … a rematch between No. 3 Muskegon and No. 10 Detroit King could be taking place in the state championship game.

Muskegon defeated King 24-21 in Week 2 when junior quarterback Cameron Martinez scored with just over a minute left after Central Michigan-bound Dequan Finn gave King a 21-17 lead with 5:03 remaining.

Muskegon enters as the defending state champion and the favorite to repeat, showcasing a mammoth offensive line.

Martinez, a transfer from Muskegon Catholic Central, has done an outstanding job in replacing La’Darius Jefferson.

Martinez, who has 4.45 speed, has rushed for 1,411 yards on 130 carries (10.9 yards a carry) behind Muskegon’s offensive line, which averages 6-3 and 310 pounds, led by LSU-bound tackle Anthony Bradford (6-5, 360). Muskegon had 660 rushing yards in the 55-35 Week 8 win over rival Mona Shores.

“He’s football fast, a strong, physical, athletic kid,” said Coach Shane Fairfield of Martinez. “Cam has the line back from last year so he has a really seasoned offensive line that’s doing a lot of great things for him and that gives him confidence. He has a great arm and gets the ball out on time.”

Muskegon enters the playoffs with a 23-game winning streak.

“I feel better about our offense this year right now than what it was last year,” said Fairfield of Muskegon’s offense, which averages 53.3 points.

King is led by Finn, who has a talented group of receivers, including four-star junior Rashawn Williams, CMU-bound Darrell Wyatt, Dominick Polidore-Hannah and Lemuel Neely-Whatley.

No. 20 River Rouge has moved up from Division 4 and is coming off an impressive 45-0 rout of Division 1 Southfield A&T. Its lone loss came in the season opener at the hands of Cass Tech, 40-8.

Rouge boasts Clemson-bound defensive end Ruke Orhorhoro, a veteran quarterback in Emanuel Ferguson (Air Force) and a three-way weapon in Daraun McKinney (Northern Illinois), who helped River Rouge advance to the Division 4 state semifinals last year.

McKinney set state records for kick returns for TDs (seven) and punt returns for TDs (five) last year. He has enjoyed another strong season, getting three pick-six TDs from his cornerback position, along with returning three punts for TDs and one kickoff for a TD.

Defending champion: Muskegon

Favorite: Muskegon

Contender: Detroit King

Darkhorse: River Rouge

State final prediction: Muskegon over King

Toughest district: District 1 in Region 4 with River Rouge playing at Detroit King in what would be a regional final or state semifinal caliber game.

Farmington Hills Harrison players celebrate their win over rival Farmington on Friday night.

Division 4

Legendary coach John Herrington got what he wanted, a chance to compete in Division 4 in Farmington Hills Harrison’s final season.

Herrington, who is the state’s all-time winningest coach with 441 victories in 49 years, was hoping Harrison (6-3) would drop to Division 4 after the enrollment dropped dramatically this year.

And, the 77-yer-old Herrington won’t have to worry about having Muskegon in its path like a year ago. 

Herrington is confident to have Keel Watson running Harrison’s offense. He has started the last three games since transferring in from Detroit Delta Prep, which closed last month. Watson helped Harrison snap a two-game losing streak in Friday’s 48-7 win over crosstown rival Farmington.

“He’s executing the offense well so we can use Max Martin at tight end and Rod (1,000-yard running back Heard) doesn’t have to play at the wildcat as much, which is good," said Herrington.

Grand Rapids Catholic Central is the two-time defending state champion, entering the postseason this time around as a contender, not the favorite.

GRCC lost running back Nolan Fugate, who ran for 306 yards and four TDs in last year’s title game win over Edwardsburg, along with two-way linemen Jalen Mayfield, who is now at Michigan.

Still, GRCC is 8-1 with its lone loss coming in Week 2 to No. 8 Saline. It has big wins over Zeeland East (17-13), five-time defending Division 5 state champ Grand Rapids West Catholic (24-14) and coming off a 42-7 rout of Comstock Park this past Friday.

Edwardsburg enters as the favorite, going unbeaten and posting four shutouts, including a 56-0 blanking of Sturgis on Friday. Edwardsburg would meet GRCC in the semifinals.

Detroit Country Day coach Dan MacLean is thrilled to be back in the postseason after having its 11-year run come to an end last season.

Country Day lost to GRCC in the 2016 title game, 10-7.

Country Day is led by two-way standout Anthony Toma, who is playing running back this season after handling the quarterback duties last season.

“We’ve been pretty good running the ball, established the running game and when we’ve been good we haven’t turned the ball over,” said MacLean, who has junior Ahlon Mitchell running Country Day’s offense and also playing cornerback.

Grosse Ile (9-0) could also make a deep run, pulling off a 29-13 upset of previously unbeaten Dearborn Crestwood Friday.

Defending champion: Grand Rapids CC (two-time)

Favorite: Edwardsburg

Contender: Grand Rapids CC

Darkhorse: Farmington Hills Harrison

State final prediction: Farmington Hills Harrison over Grand Rapids CC

Toughest district: District 2 in Region 4 with a solid Chelsea team facing unbeaten Grosse Ile and Detroit Cody playing at Milan.

Jonathan Moreland of Detroit Denby celebrates with teammate Kobe Reeder after the win over Detroit Cody on Friday night.

Division 5

Five-time defending champion Grand Rapids West Catholic needed a 43-10 win over Coopersville Friday night to get in with a 5-4 record.

West Catholic was 60-10 the previous five seasons, winning its first state title in 2013 while coming in with a 5-4 record.

Saginaw Swan Valley is unbeaten and could face West Catholic in a state semifinal.

Harper Woods has the talent to make a run to reach Ford Field and come away with the championship trophy with Rod Oden guiding the program.

Oden has a big front line, anchored by Morgan State-bound tackles Rachon Gulley (6-4, 330) and James Drain (6-3, 290), along with 6-2, 285-pound sophomore Davion Weatherspoon, who already owns an offer from Michigan, opening holes for running back Jordan Anderson while protecting quarterback Corey Graham.

“I like our chances in Division 5 because we’ll be on the road and get some different looks,” said Oden.

Detroit Denby coach Tony Blankenship is confident heading into the playoffs, and for good reason.

Denby came back from a 16-6 halftime deficit to defeat Detroit Cody 20-16 in the PSL Division 2 championship game. Denby’s defense forced a fumble, pouncing on the loose ball in the end zone for a TD early in the fourth quarter, then blocked a punt leading to another score to spark the comeback.

“We have a veteran group of kids who have played in playoff games before so we’re battle tested," said Blankenship, who is now in his sixth year at Denby.

Blankenship feels fortunate to have an elite running back in T’Shawn Wilkes, who has rushed for 1,800 yards and 26 TDs.

“In my 20 years of coaching he’s probably the No. 1 running back I’ve had because I haven’t seen a kid with the type of vision, footwork, toughness and size that he has, and he can catch the ball out of the backfield, so he’s the complete package,” said Blankenship.

Defending champion: Grand Rapids West Catholic (five-time)

Favorite: Saginaw Swan Valley

Contender: Harper Woods

Darkhorse: Detroit Denby

State final prediction: Harper Woods over Saginaw Swan Valley

Toughest district: District 1 in Region 3 with unbeaten Portland and Lansing Catholic Central in the field.

Division 6

Herb Brogan has guided Jackson Lumen Christi to 351 wins and eight state championships since leading the program in 1980, including titles the last two years.

And there’s no reason to think Lumen Christi (8-0) won’t be playing into deep November this time around.

Brogan has had the luxury of having outstanding running backs in the past. Now, Nick Thomas is the main man in Lumen Christi’s backfield, rushing for 1,139 yards while averaging 11.5 yards a carry behind an offensive line anchored by Keegan Smith and tight end Dayton Keller (25 catches, 402 yards).

“We’re talented, but not as deep,” said Brogan, when asked to compare his team to the 2017 team. “We are capable of winning it, but it won’t be easy." 

Traverse City St. Francis (9-0) will be a threat to end Lumen Christi’s run and Ithaca (8-1) is always dangerous.

Warren Michigan Collegiate (8-1) will look for another long run after losing to Lumen Christi in last year’s state semifinals.

Defending champion: Jackson Lumen Christi (two-time)

Favorite: Lumen Christi

Contender: Traverse City St. Francis

Darkhorse: Warren Michigan Collegiate

State final prediction: Jackson Lumen Christi over Traverse City St. Francis

Toughest district: District 1 in Region 1 with a possible battle of unbeatens between Traverse City St. Francis and Calumet in the championship game.

Division 7

Pewamo-Westphalia is primed for a Division 7 Dynasty, coming in as the two-time defending champs.

P-W capped off its perfect regular season with a 28-27 overtime win over a talented Division 4 Williamston team Friday.

Coach Jeremy Miller’s P-W program has won 22 straight games, opening the season with a 38-0 win over Ithaca, ending Ithaca’s 73-game regular-season winning streak.

Cam Wirth had 161 yards and three TDs in the season opener and ran for 142 yards and four TDs against Williamston.

Madison Heights Madison is having another outstanding season, led by quarterback Austin Brown.

Brown is 34-1 as a starter the last three years, transferring in from Detroit Catholic Central, where he helped CC reach the Division 1 state title game his sophomore year in 2016.

Brown led Madison to the state semifinals last season and has thrown for more than 6,000 yards and 100 TDs during his career. He will play baseball at Marshall.

John Callahan returned as head coach Detroit Loyola this season after a year at New Haven. He guided Loyola to state title game appearances in 2012, ’13, ’14 and ’16, winning the championship in 2014.

Loyola (6-3) reached the Catholic League championship game Saturday at Ford Field, a 29-6 loss to Dearborn Divine Child. He said Loyola has no fewer than six players out with injuries, but does have physical running back D’Vaun Bentley, who has rushed for more than 1,500 yards.

Defending champion: Pewamo-Westphalia (two-time)

Favorite: Pewamo-Westphalia

Contender: Madison Heights Madison

Darkhorse: Detroit Loyola

State final prediction: Pewamo-Westphalia over Madison

Toughest district: District 1 in Region 4 with Madison and Detroit Loyola on collision course to play in the championship game.

Division 8

Ottawa Lake Whiteford has advanced to Ford Field in each of the last two seasons, losing to Muskegon Catholic Central in 2016, then making a return trip last year to take care of unfinished business with a 42-21 win over Saginaw Nouvel.

Whiteford has averaged 54 points during its 9-0 season.

Whiteford returned multiple key players from last year’s team, including running back Logan Murphy. Quarterback Spencer Hoffman and receiver Zac Clark have also played well.

Defending champion: Ottawa Lake Whiteford

Favorite: Ottawa Lake Whiteford

Contender: Breckenridge

Darkhorse: Sterling Heights Parkway

State final prediction: Ottawa Lake Whiteford over Breckenridge.

Toughest district: District 2 in Region 4 with Adrian Lenawee Christian playing a pre-district game against Ottawa Lake Whiteford.