Southfield-Lathrup determined to go out with win

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Southfield — Keith Stephens was a big man with a big voice and resume — and even bigger goals when he arrived at Southfield-Lathrup High in January 2013.

Stephens, who previously turned around the Dearborn Heights Robichaud football team, set out to do the same thing at Lathrup, and he made that perfectly clear in his first meeting with players.

It was state playoffs or bust.

“I think if he was here, he would proud of everybody,” senior wide receiver Sterling Alexander said during a break at practice. “We finally got there.

“He’s looking down at us. I know he’s proud.”

After a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer, Stephens died in February. He was 61.

That was a most devastating blow for a football team that also is playing this year with the weight of a community on its shoulders, knowing the doors of the high school will close this summer when Lathrup and Southfield High merge, a financially motivated move by district officials.

The football team made good on one of Stephens’ goals, beating Westland John Glenn last week to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2007. Lathrup (6-3) plays at Berkley (7-2) at 7 tonight.

Berkley won the previous meeting, 41-0, two weeks ago, so the odds of Lathrup advancing are long.

Not that Stephens would have wanted to hear that.

“We’ve been through a lot of adversity,” senior running back Gregory Gilliam said. “We stuck with the season and tried to do it for Coach Stephens.

“He’d get mad at you sometimes, but it was all in love. He might scream at you on the field, but when he came to the sidelines, he’d say, ‘I know you’re better than that.’ ”

“I think if he was here, he would proud of everybody,” Sterling Alexander (pictured) said of late coach Keith Stephens.

‘A father to everybody’

In Stephens’ first year, Lathrup was 1-8. In 2014, it improved to 4-5, its most wins since 2009, and, suddenly, players were starting to believe.

Last year, Stephens coached through the cancer — and players were under the impression he was going to get through it.

It was crushing when he didn’t.

“He was a Hall of Famer, he cared about the kids, he was a big deal to us,” said Jason Solomon, the defensive coordinator who took over for Stephens. “He was like a father to everybody, he was a mentor to me, like a grandfather to the kids.

“I thought it would be best if we stayed on as a staff for the kids. And the kids bought in.”

It wasn’t long before the community was buying in, too.

Lathrup started 1-2 before reeling off five consecutive wins — none more memorable than a 61-26 triumph over Pontiac on Oct. 10, which was homecoming at Lathrup.

And it wasn’t the typical homecoming. This was the last Lathrup homecoming, and alums — some from when the school opened in 1967 — flocked to the campus to celebrate.

Next year, however, is going to be a tough one for current Lathrup students, including several football players, when the merger takes place.

For the players, that will mean having to compete with twice the number of kids for a spot on the roster. Some Lathrup players already are considering their transfer options.

“It’s very tough; you see a lot of kids with potential,” said Solomon, whose counterpart at Southfield, Tim Conley, is expected to coach the football team after the merger.

“Now they’re just kind of like, ‘What’s gonna happen to me?’ It’s gonna be difficult, it’s gonna be a challenge. But we talked to them about it. At everything, in life, you’re gonna have to compete.”

If Lathrup players have learned anything this year, it’s that — compete no matter what life throws at you.

And they vow to do the same thing tonight.

“It’s been a hard year since the beginning, but we pushed through it, we fought through it,” Alexander said. “We came together as a team.”

‘Do it for the school’

Can they do it one more time?

“We want it bad,” Gilliam said. “Lathrup ain’t been looked on good in a while, and it’s sad that as soon as we started building the program back up, we’ve gotta close down.

“We’ve gotta do it for the school and all the people here that believe in us. We’ve gotta do it for our families and Coach Stephens. We’ve gotta get it done.”