Birmingham Groves finds strength in camaraderie

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Beverly Hills — There’s a lot of smiling at the Flaherty home these days, thanks to Birmingham Groves’ 10-0 record and trip to the Division 2 district finals Friday.

Ryan Flaherty recalls a lot of smiles the last time Groves won a district title in 2004. He spent that season as the team’s waterboy.

Now, he’s on the field, playing for his father, Brendan, and leading a defense that has allowed 58 points all season.

“I was around in ’04, the last time we won a district title,” said Ryan Flaherty, a physical 6-foot-2, 185-pound junior free safety. “There were a lot of smiles in the house, and the smiles are coming back this year.”

Next up for Groves is a trip to No. 5 Walled Lake Western (10-0), which boasts an offense averaging 42 points.

Flaherty said the reasons for his team’s success are experience and closeness.

“Our strength is how close we are,” Flaherty said. “There’s eight or nine of us who have been together playing since our Little League days. We know what each other is going to do, where we’ll be at so we have each other’s back.”

Brendan Flaherty loves coming to practice every day because of that closeness.

“There’s a handful of guys who want to play college football, but then there’s a good majority of them, like an Ian Rice, where this is everything for him,” said Flaherty, a 1990 graduate of Eastern Michigan, where he was captain his senior season.

“And the commitment of those guys and everybody pulling together is really, really cool. There’s some guys who have a chip on their shoulder, feeling we’ve been under the radar, but they don’t let that bother them. It’s like, ‘Let’s prove it.’ ”

Groves runs a 4-4-3 defense, with the majority of its starters back from last year’s playoff team, including linebackers Ian Rice, Sammad Ali, Nathan Wagner and Jason Zanolli.

Ali, who has been offered scholarships from Bowling Green and Northern Illinois, said the key for the defense is communication.

“We feel blessed to be in the position we’re in, but we set the tone early this season, showing we could be a real good team,” Ali said. “I feel we really communicate well together.”

They did that last week against Farmington Hills Harrison, which had won five straight in the series. And they hope to do the same against Western.

“It’s going to be a change for us since Pioneer and Harrison were run-oriented teams,” Rice said. “We haven’t seen a spread (that Western runs) this year, other than Avondale. We’ll look at it differently, look to stop the pass more than the run.”

But defense isn’t all that drives Groves.

Groves boasts a top-flight running game behind Ernest Allen (118 carries, 786 yards, 14 touchdowns) and C.J. Boswell (74 carries, 410 yards, four touchdowns).

“Our key was getting as many yards as we could against Harrison,” said Boswell, who will play cornerback at Iowa next season. “We knew their defense was tough ... (but) we have some weapons on offense.”

Said Allen: “We believe in ourselves and have another great opportunity in front of us.”