David Goricki of The Detroit News breaks down Saturday’s high school football finals.
DIVISION 1: Detroit Cass Tech (11-2) vs. Romeo (12-1), 1 p.m. Saturday
How they made it here
Detroit Cass Tech earned a spot in the PSL championship game Oct. 23, losing to top-ranked Detroit King 27-25 at Ford Field. Cass Tech regrouped in the state playoffs with dominating district wins over Waterford Mott (39-7) and Dearborn Fordson (45-13) before a tough 16-10 regional win over Macomb Dakota and a 48-41 semifinal victory over Canton on Saturday in the snow.
Cass Tech is loaded with Division 1 talent, including Michigan-bound offensive lineman Michael Onwenu, four-star junior receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, Illinois-bound linebacker Tim Walton and a star-studded secondary led by Michigan State-bound safety Demetric Vance, four-star cornerback Donovan Johnson (Tennessee, Cincinnati) and safety Jaylen Kelly-Powell (22 offers, including Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State).
However, Cass Tech was dealt a blow when junior quarterback Rodney Hall (2,384 yards passing, 19 touchdowns, 1,127 yards rushing, 16 touchdowns) fractured his ankle in the semifinal.
Romeo was the class of Macomb Country and a Hoosiers-type story in this championship field with an enrollment of under 1,700. It defeated four-time MAC Red champion Macomb Dakota (26-14) in Week 6 and rebounded from a 17-14 loss to Utica Eisenhower in the regular-season finale by defeating two-time defending Division 1 state champion Clarkston (28-14) to open the playoffs, then getting past a Lapeer team, 34-14, that knocked it out of the playoffs last season, followed by a semifinal win over Detroit Catholic Central (40-29) and a 48-21 rout of Grand Ledge in the semifinal with a dominating second-half performance in the snow.
Romeo co-coaches Jason Couch and Curt Rienas made significant changes on both sides of the ball during the last two years to make this run happen. Couch, who handles the offense, made the move to a hybrid wing-T from the spread so the Bulldogs would be ready to run the ball in snowy, rainy conditions of November. Rienas decided to make a change on the defensive front, putting in shorter players who would go on the attack rather than bigger players trying to hit, hold and shed offensive linemen.
Players to watch
Donovan Peoples-Jones, Detroit Cass Tech: Peoples-Jones, a 6-1, 190-pound junior, is considered one of the premier athletes in the country. The four-star receiver/kick returner has big-play ability, showing that in the semifinal with touchdown catches of 80 and 78 yards from sophomore backup quarterback Aaron Jackson, who replaced Hall. He already has offers from national powers Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
Mitchell Heimbuch, Romeo: Heimbuch is a two-way star (tight end, middle linebacker) at 6-3 and 220 pounds. He is a big hitter on defense and forces fumbles and makes interceptions with great regularity. He is definitely an impact player, one of quarterback Paul Hurley’s primary weapons, grabbing at least one touchdown pass in each of the playoff games, including a 59-yarder against Clarkston and an 80-yarder against Lapeer the following week.
Why Cass Tech can win
Cass Tech’s coaching staff has experience of playing on the big stage, winning Division 1 state championships in 2011 and 2012. Cass Tech is used to playing at Ford Field, winning the PSL title last year and losing to King this season. No player has been better than People-Jones at Ford Field, grabbing two touchdown passes last year, including one on a short pass turned into an 82-yard score, and scoring on a 50-yard punt return this season.
Peoples-Jones can get separation at the line and turn those short passes into big gainers and will need to with an inexperienced quarterback in Jackson running the show. Cass Tech has the ability to take the pressure off of Jackson with their running game, showing their ability with a pair of 100-yard runners in Johnson and Tim Cheatham in the semifinal.
Why Romeo can win
Romeo has an outstanding balanced offensive attack. Couch changed the style to wing-T prior to this season, but Hurley has three years of experience — two in the spread — and can throw the ball with authority. He also has weapons in receiver/running back Brad Tanner and Heimbuch. If Tanner, also a cornerback, can prevent Peoples-Jones from making big plays and Heimbuch can force a turnover or two, Romeo has a legitimate shot at pulling off an upset.
It should be interesting up front with Cass Tech’s huge offensive line of Onwenu (6-3, 350), Jordan Reid (6-4, 285, offers from Florida, Tennessee), Ostell Martin (6-5, 315) and Alvin Clemons (6-2, 280) going up against Romeo’s Hunberto Flores (5-8, 175), Jacob Hernden (5-8, 185) and Joey Meyers (5-9, 180). Look for Cass Tech to dominate at the line of scrimmage to open up holes for Cheatham and Johnson to make it necessary for Jackson to throw the ball just a handful of times. Peoples-Jones will make a difference. Pick: Cass Tech 35-20
DIVISION 3: Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (11-1) vs. Chelsea (12-1), 7:30 p.m. Saturday
How they made it here
Defending Division 3 state champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s came back from getting soundly beaten by Warren De La Salle 31-8 early in the season to avenge the loss a month later with a 38-0 win in the Catholic League title game at Ford Field. St. Mary’s carried the momentum into the playoffs, dominating Bay City John Glenn (49-7) and Linden (55-14) before a 56-14 rout of St. Johns in the regional. St. Mary’s was given a scare by East Grand Rapids (14-7) in the semifinal while playing without 1,000-yard rusher Justin Myrick (hamstring).
St. Mary’s is known for its ability to run the ball. It has depth at that position with junior Ryan Johnson filling in for Myrick and rushing for 91 yards, including a big 70-yard touchdown run against East Grand Rapids, which it was 0-6 against in the playoffs, losing three times in state championship games. The St. Mary’s defense — led by four-star junior linebacker Josh Ross and three-star cornerback Kahlee Hamler — has been strong all season, aside from the loss to De La Salle, allowing an average of seven points since that Week 5 loss. And, don’t forget about junior linebacker Dwayne Chapman (offers from Toledo, Bowling Green) who was an impact player in last year’s 7-0 championship win over Muskegon, making seven tackles and intercepting a pass.
Brad Bush has guided Chelsea to several outstanding seasons during his 19-year run as head coach, including 11-1 in 2000, 10-1 the following year, and 10-1 again in 2004, but never as good as this year’s team, which was able to deliver him his first regional championship and a trip to Ford Field. And, what makes it even sweeter is the fact that his son is one of the players responsible.
Senior quarterback Jack Bush has been outstanding and he has weapons to work with in Minnesota-bound receiver Bailey Edwards (51 receptions, 727 yards, nine touchdowns) and receiver Noah van Reesema (28, 683, 6). Chelsea bounced back from a Week 7 loss to Ypsilanti (34-24), defeating Ann Arbor Pioneer (9-7) the following week, then continuing to play strong defense during the postseason with wins over Romulus (29-6) and Trenton (29-16) in the districts followed by a 35-12 victory over Allen Park in the regional and a 35-7 rout of unbeaten Coldwater in the semifinals.
Players to watch
Josh Ross, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s: Ross is a dominant force from his linebacker position. He showed he could block when called upon on offense too, opening a huge hole for Johnson to burst 70 yards for a score in a snowstorm on the opening drive of the second half, which proved to be the difference in the semifinal. He has been in on more than 100 tackles this season, 20 for loss yardage.
Jack Bush, Chelsea: Bush has thrown for 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns and has never been better during the regionals and semifinals, completing 27-of-32 for 458 yards and six touchdowns. He hit on 16 of 20 for 264 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Allen Park, then 11 of 12 for 194 yards and four touchdowns against Coldwater, scoring on a 3-yard run to open the scoring in the semifinal, then finding van Reesema for a 29-yard touchdown strike four seconds later after Chelsea recovered a fumble on the kickoff.
Why St. Mary’s can win
St. Mary’s has been battle-tested, defeating a pair of state champions in De La Salle (Division 2) and Detroit Loyola (Division 7), one of Indiana’s premier programs in Mishawaka Penn and a tough Catholic League schedule which included Division 1 power Detroit Catholic Central.
St. Mary’s has an outstanding offensive line, led by Northwestern-bound tackle Cameron Kolwich, and has a number of runners who can break long runs for touchdowns, displayed by Johnson, who filled in for Myrick.
Why Chelsea can win
Chelsea definitely has a shot if Bush continues to be accurate, especially delivering to threats in Edwards and van Reesema.
And, don’t forget Chelsea defense, which has forced turnovers to turn the field quickly in their favor. St. Mary’s quarterback Brendan Tabone threw a pair of interceptions in the semifinal and Chelsea will be looking to put pressure on him early.
St. Mary’s is used to playing at Ford Field, winning the Division 3 championship last year, then coming back to win the Catholic League title this season. Bush is playing at the top of his game, but he has yet to see a shutdown corner like Hamler who could take Edwards out of the game. Look for St. Mary’s defense to come through with a big effort and the St. Mary’s running backs to break a couple of big plays. Pick: St. Mary’s 17-12.
DIVISION 5: River Rouge (12-1) vs. Grand Rapids West Catholic (11-2), 4:30 p.m. Saturday
How they made it here
River Rouge earned the trip to Ford Field with a nail-biting 28-26 win over Ida when quarterback Antoine Burgess found Alexander Carter on a screen pass which he turned into a 75-yard touchdown with 2:28 left, then had its defense stop a two-point run after an Ida touchdown with 14 seconds left.
River Rouge dominated in postseason play up to that point, earning shutouts over Clawson (74-0) and Detroit University Prep (42-0) in district play, then owning a 51-25 win over Algonac in the regional. The River Rouge defense is led by end Jamal Bonner and linebacker Devonte Pitkins with a strong secondary consisting of Reggie Pearson, Eric Chenault, Marquis Robinson and Robert Blackwell.
Grand Rapids West Catholic had a much tougher road to get to Ford Field, defeating Muskegon Oakridge (28-14) and Reed City (21-14) in the district before taking an eight-hour bus ride up to Menominee to defeat a program it beat for the Division 5 state championship in 2013, 24-14 in a regional. Next up was a dominating 42-13 semifinal win over Minnesota-bound quarterback Tony Poljan and a Lansing Catholic Central program it beat in last year’s Division 5 title game.
Sophomore Gaetano Vallone has done a good job of replacing quarterback Travis Russell, who led the West Catholic to multiple state championship game appearances. He has several weapons to work with in running back Denny Alt (1,300-plus rushing yards) and receivers Sam Neville (46 receptions, 978 yards, 10 touchdowns), Conner Nemmers (40, 870, 13 touchdowns) and Zach Zenner (31, 542, 5).
Players to watch
Antoine Burgess, River Rouge: Burgess has developed into an outstanding dual-threat quarterback for River Rouge, throwing for 1,487 yards and 27 touchdowns (just four interceptions) and rushing for more than 1,100 yards. He rushed for 211 yards (26 carries) and six touchdowns against Algonac to give the Panthers their first regional championship, then completed 8-of-12 passes in the snow last Saturday for 217 yards and three touchdowns, including touchdown tosses of 20 and 60 yards to Aaron Vinson in the semifinal win.
Gaetano Vallone, Grand Rapids West Catholic: Vallone quickly showed he was the right man to lead the offense in a Week 2 49-6 win over Grand Rapids Union, throwing for four touchdowns and running for three more scores. His performance came a week after a season-opening 22-21 loss to Jackson Lumen Christi. He was outstanding in the semifinal win over LCC, completing 11-of-15 for 223 yards and three touchdowns.
Why River Rouge can win
River Rouge has a quarterback in Burgess who has shown he can make things happen with his passing and running. And, Burgess has multiple big-play weapons in Vinson and Carter. River Rouge’s defense can force turnovers to turn the field in their favor.
Why West Catholic can win
Ford Field is like West Catholic’s second home, playing at the site for a fourth straight season. West Catholic’s defense has been playing well, limiting Menominee to 14 points after it had averaged 44 points during district play, then limiting a great quarterback in Poljan & LCC to just 13 points.
West Catholic coach Dan Rohn has his players competing at a high level at Ford Field and the experience of playing in a big atmosphere is a huge advantage. There’s no doubt Burgess is playing well, but so is Vallone and he has more players to work with. Pick: West Catholic 21-20.
DIVISION 7: Pewamo-Westphalia (13-0) vs. Ishpeming (12-0), 10 a.m. Saturday
How they made it here
Pewamo-Westphalia had a statement game in Week 1 against a strong Madison Heights Madison team, coming out on top 26-25 behind a 124-yard, two-touchdown effort from junior running back Jared Smith. He ran behind the blocking of Nate Jandernoa, who head coach Jeremy Miller moved from guard to fullback just prior to the game.
Miller’s move has paid off with Jandernoa, a 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior, leading the way for Smith to run for a single-season state-record 3,101 yards and a state-record 52 rushing touchdowns. Jandernoa has also been strong on the defensive side at linebacker, helping to put pressure on enemy quarterbacks, leading to cornerback Logan Hengesbach being able to get 10 interceptions.
Pewamo-Westphalia defeated Carson City-Crystal (42-21) and Saugatuck (38-28) in the districts, then put on a dominating performance in a 40-3 regional rout of Cassopolis and a 30-0 shutout of defending state champion Detroit Loyola in the semifinal.
Ishpeming knows the way to Ford Field, earning its fourth consecutive trip to the championship game by defeating Ishpeming Westwood (26-6) and Iron Mountain (24-14) in the district, then McBain (40-2) in the regional before a 22-14 semifinal win over New Lothrop.
Senior quarterback Ozzy Corp has run Ishpeming offense the last two years, displaying his skills as a dual-threat quarterback. Corp and Daren Giuchin (five interceptions) have played well in the secondary and senior linebacker Thomas Finegan has made big hits to force turnovers while also intercepting seven passes.
Players to watch
Jared Smith, Pewamo-Westphalia: Most running backs would dream of having a season where they ran for 1,036 yards and 14 touchdowns, but that’s what the 6-0, 205-pound Smith has rushed for during Pewamo-Westphalia’s four postseason games, including 193 yards on 30 carries and two touchdowns 2 TDs in the semifinal win over defending champion Loyola, the majority coming out of the wildcat formation.
Ozzy Corp, Ishpeming: Corp, a 6-5 senior, is used to playing at Ford Field, starting at cornerback where he had an interception two years ago in a state championship win over Loyola, then at quarterback last year in a loss to Loyola. He showed just how good of a dual-threat quarterback he was in the win over Iron Mountain when he ran for 117 yards and threw for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
Why Pewamo-Westphalia can win
Pewamo-Westphalia can win by giving the ball to Smith where he either runs from behind the blocking of fullback Nick Jandernoa and the line led by Matt Fox or from the wildcat formation. That plans has worked all season.
Why Ishpeming can win
Ishpeming has a solid quarterback in Corp and a defense which hasn’t allowed more than 16 points in a game all season. It will be difficult to stop Smith, but Ishpeming’s defense is capable of slowing him down and forcing turnovers.
This has been a special season for Pewamo-Westphalia , certainly one to remember for Smith and the multiple state records. Ishpeming usually makes the most of its long trip to the Motor City, but it will go home with the runner-up trophy for the second straight year. Pick: Pewamo-Westphalia 19-12