Lincoln Park — Welcome to the Big Stage of the state high school football playoffs, Lincoln Park … it’s been a while.
Lincoln Park, which suffered through a 66-game losing streak not so long ago (2006-2013), will be making its first state playoff appearance since 2002.
Detroit Cesar Chavez earned its first winning season in the six-year history of the program.
Also, making its first postseason appearance is Benton Harbor. Former Western Michigan head coach and Michigan assistant Elliot Uzelac had a magical season in his first year as Benton Harbor head coach, ending a 20-game losing streak in Week 2, then guiding it to its first winning season since 1989.
And, don’t forget Sterling Heights, which is 7-2 after consecutive 1-8 seasons, gaining its first playoff spot in a dozen years.
Lincoln Park enjoys party
Lincoln Park’s players had reason to party after earning a 21-19 win over Gibraltar Carlson Friday to improve to 6-3 and punch its ticket into postseason play.
Players, coaches, parents and friends met up at Vito’s Italian Restaurant in Lincoln Park to watch the “MHSAA Pairings Show,” finding out the Railsplitters would be playing a Division 2 district game at Wyandotte with thunderous applause and flashes going off from countless cellphones.
Lincoln Park came back from a fourth-quarter deficit to pull out an 18-15 win over Downriver League rival Wyandotte in Week 4 to improve to 3-1. It needed to pull out another thriller Friday, defeating Carlson, 21-19, in a battle of 5-3 teams to get in.
“We’re very proud of this group of kids that we have here,” said Lincoln Park coach Jamie Grignon, who made his first stop as head coach from 1994-99, then returned in 2013 to end the streak before helping the team to a 3-6 record last year. “We asked a lot of them to come in early in the morning in January and February, six in the morning to do our Rise and Grind conditioning. They answered the bell and this is their reward.
“They’re excited and you could see just how excited they are. We get another chance at Wyandotte and we know them and they know us so there are not going to be many secrets.”
Steve Glenn, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound quarterback, has enjoyed a strong senior season as a dual threat. His primary receiver is junior Devon Carson.
“This is very important for our program because now we can show kids that are coming in the next couple of years that it’s very possible to win games at Lincoln Park and hopefully the kids that grow up here stay here,” said Glenn, who played with an ankle injury against Carlson, but said he is at 80 percent and should be fine for the playoffs.
Glenn talked of the win over Wyandotte.
“We came out with fire and intensity and since we beat them we’re going to come out super confident and if we play our best, we’ll be fine,” Glenn said. As for win over Carlson, “It was nerve-wracking, but I knew we could get it done. It was probably the most memorable thing that happened to me in high school.”
Cesar Chavez seniors shine
Tarif Kumasi’s friends and even his wife thought he was crazy when he decided to start Detroit Cesar Chavez’s football program from scratch six years ago.
Kumasi had a vision, feeling he could one day have an experienced senior class with a quarterback who could efficiently run his no-huddle, five-wide receiver offense.
Well, Kumasi’s dream became reality this season with a large senior class taking Cesar Chavez into the playoffs, led by a quarterback Omar Salih, who is having a year the school’s fans will talk about for decades to come.
Salih and Cesar Chavez (7-2) will play in a Division 4 district game on the road against standout linebacker Cortez Gray and Milan (7-2).
Salih has thrown for 3,800 yards — fourth-most in state history for a single season — and 43 TDs with just 8 INTs. Jason Fracassa of Sterling Heights Stevenson set the record in 2009, throwing for 4,433 yards in 14 games with CMU junior Cooper Rush second on the charts, throwing for 4,002 for Lansing Catholic Central in 14 games in 2011.
“I started the program back in 2010 and it’s been a labor of love for me, taking a group of kids who basically never played and teach them the game,” said Kumasi, a former receiver at Cass Tech from 1990-94. “Usually this time of year we’re turning our pads in so I’m super proud of what these kids have accomplished, getting in the state playoffs … Something like your first child being born.
“This senior class has been with me the whole way and the big difference is having a quarterback like Omar. If you’re going to throw every down like we do in a no-huddle style you have to be able to read defenses, make checks and call audibles and he’s been great. We have five receivers with at least 30 catches, no stars, just players doing a great job for us and our line has played well too.”
It was a day to remember for Kumasi, who celebrated his oldest son Khari’s birthday, then watched his flag football game before watching the Pairings Show at Elzocalo Restaurant in Mexicantown.
Uzelac’s best work at Benton Harbor
Elliot Uzelac came out of retirement at age 74 to try to turn the culture around at Benton Harbor. It would be safe to say he has, especially on the field where the Tigers had a 5-4 season — surpassing the combined win total (4) of the previous eight years — with four wins coming against Class A schools.
It would be easy to say this is Uzelac’s best job as a head coach and that’s saying a lot since he earned MAC Coach of the Year honors in his second year at Western Michigan in 1976, turning a 1-10 team into 7-4 with a win over rival Central Michigan. And, don’t forget his work at Michigan as an offensive line coach under Bo Schembechler in 1986 when the Wolverines played in the Rose Bowl and Jim Harbaugh finished third in Heisman Trophy voting.
“I’m so proud of these kids and it means so much to me personally because I have never been around a team that improved so much so fast in so little time,” Uzelac said. “We talked a lot to these kids about getting better and they worked hard every day. They didn’t know any technical aspect that we teach and it was so important to build trust between the coaches and players.
“Bo (Schembechler) talked about those who stay will be champions and there’s a lot who will bail because of how tough things are to really get there. This group of kids have given the school its first winning season since 1989 and its first state playoff appearance. I just told them ‘You’re making history and your picture will be on the wall in our brand new weight room.’ We’re taking a new picture because it’s different from the one we took at the start of the season.
“This gives these kids more pride, makes them relevant that they are where some other schools are and that obviously hasn’t always been the case. They’re making progress with social and academic decisions too and that’s just as important.”
Benton Harbor assured itself a trip to postseason play with a 29-23 overtime win over Portage Northern Friday, ending an eight-game losing streak in the rivalry. Tim Bell’s 18-yard TD pass to George Walker with 1:28 left forced overtime. He then found Adrien Alexander for a 2-yard TD toss in overtime. Sean Hopkins had two interceptions, his final one in OT. Junior running back Percy Brown filled in for 1,000-yard rusher Jeremy Burrell (thigh injury) and ran for 177 yards and a TD.
The players met at the school’s cafeteria, enjoyed some pizza and found out their reward, hosting Dowagiac (6-3) in a Division 4 district game.
Seniors spark Sterling Heights’ success
After consecutive 1-8 seasons, Jacob Cyccone stepped up to have a strong senior season as Sterling Heights’ third-year starting quarterback.
Cyccone has helped Sterling Heights (7-2) match its combined win total of the previous five years when it experienced three 1-8 seasons and an 0-9 year in 2010.
“This is the first year we’ve had our entire coaching staff return and we’re all on the same page and that’s important,” seventh-year Sterling Heights head coach Brent Widdows said. “We’re a spiritual group and the players have openly talked about our fears and dreams and built on that faith in each other. It’s really been a family, a brotherhood in the locker room.”
Cyccone threw for 2 TDs and ran for another in a 25-19 statement win in Week 6 over Marine City — state championship program in 2013 and ’07 — ending a five-game losing streak in the series.
“We use the spread offense, but we’ll also use the jet sweep and the power run,” Widdows said. “Our fullback Devin Cleghorn ran for 155 yards and three TDs in our last game, a 35-8 win over Fraser.”