State football finals preview: Saturday’s games
West Bloomfield (11-2) vs. Clarkston (11-2), Saturday, 1 p.m.
West Bloomfield breakdown:
West Bloomfield was ranked No. 4 in The Detroit News Super 20 preseason poll, then stumbled to open the season with consecutive losses to Walled Lake Western and Bloomfield Hills, before living up to its potential by winning 11 straight, avenging the loss to Bloomfield Hills (31-6) to start the playoffs and continuing its run by defeating Waterford Mott (41-7), No. 3 Utica Eisenhower (28-25) and defending state champion Detroit Cass Tech, 9-7, in a state semifinal.
West Bloomfield – coached by Ron Bellamy – has several Division 1 players on offense with Bowling Green-bound quarterback Bryce Veasley (210-of-356, 3,273 yards, 25 TDs) having arguably the top trio of receivers in the Midwest in Wisconsin-bound Taj Mustapha (61 receptions, 831 yards, six TDs) and A.J. Abbott (53-1,061, 8), along with junior Tre Mosley (42-838, 10).
The Lakers also showcase a hard-hitting defense in three-star junior linebacker Lance Dixon, who has an offer from Michigan State, safety Nick Seidel (134 tackles, nine INT) and a big weapon in kicker Nick O’Shea who kicked three field goals in the win over Cass Tech.
Clarkston knows the way to Ford Field, winning consecutive Division 1 state championships in 2013 and ’14, but finished just third in the OAA Red Division, actually losing a one-sided game to Red rival West Bloomfield (37-16) in Week 4 before rebounding to win eight of its last nine, including postseason victories over Grand Blanc (37-7), Davison (28-0), Holland West Ottawa (29-22) and Detroit Catholic Central (27-7) in Saturday’s semifinal.
Clarkston has a strong running game of Josh Cantu (244 carries, 1,478 yards, 23 TDs) and Michael Fluegel (95-814, 9). They run behind a talented offensive line led by Stewart Newblatt (6-3, 250) and freshmen Garrett Dellinger (6-5, 245) and Rocco Spindler (6-5, 250), who is the son of former Lions defensive lineman Marc Spindler. Fluegel scored three TDs in the rout of Catholic Central, breaking loose for a 71-yarder in the third quarter to put the game out of reach at 27-0.
The Wolves’ defense has allowed just 12 points and forced 30 turnovers, playing well during their postseason run led by linebacker Gino Paese.
Players to watch:
Bryce Veasley, 6-4, 230, Sr., QB, West Bloomfield: Veasley is arguably the premier quarterback in the state, showing his ability to get things done during crunch time when he completed 6-of-7 passes during an 80-yard drive in the final minutes of a 28-25 regional final win over Eisenhower, scoring on a 3-yard run.
Michael Fluegel, 6-1, 180, Sr., RB, Clarkston: Fluegel has been a big-play running back since his sophomore year, then sharing the ball with Cantu his final season. He was at his best in Saturday’s semifinal win over Detroit Catholic Central, scoring three TDs and showing his breakaway speed with a 71-yard TD run in the third quarter.
How West Bloomfield can win:
West Bloomfield already has the winning formula against Clarkston, defeating the Wolves 37-16 while piling up more than 400 yards, with Veasley throwing for 325 yards and four TDs, Collin Heard running for 110 yards and a score, and Seidel making 10 tackles and intercepting two passes. Seidel forced a big fumble late in the Cass Tech game. West Bloomfield must stay away from being overconfident, especially with Clarkston having the ability to pull off the upset.
How Clarkston can win:
Clarkston has one of the top coaches in the state in Kurt Richardson (244-86, 31 years) who should know what the Wolves need to do to clean up their mistakes from the one-sided loss that took place more than two months ago. It’s obvious the Wolves need to put some pressure on Veasley and play turnover-free ball while getting big plays from Fluegel to celebrate a third state title in the last five years. Clarkston has strong special teams play, which could turn the field with punter/kicker Jermaine Roemer doing a great job.
West Bloomfield is a team on a mission, already having a record-breaking season with its first district and regional championships and the Lakers are rallying around a very talented kicker in Nick O’Shea who lost his father to a heart attack earlier this season. West Bloomfield, 27-17
Muskegon (13-0) vs. Farmington Hills Harrison (10-3), Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Muskegon, one of the top teams in the nation, has dominated throughout the year and will be trying to finish the job after losing to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in state title games in 2014 and 2016, when it lost on the game’s final play, 29-28. Muskegon has outscored its opponents 193-26 during the postseason, coming up with a 49-0 rout of DeWitt in the regional, then 42-0 over previously unbeaten Battle Creek Harper Creek in the semifinal.
Quarterback La’Darius Jefferson, who recently received an offer from Michigan State after de-committing from Central Florida, has the luxury of operating the offense behind a line loaded with Division 1 talent in Penn State-bound Antwan Reed and junior Anthony Bradford, who has offers from Alabama, Georgia and Michigan State.
Farmington Hills Harrison breakdown:
Harrison will be the big underdog, making its way to Ford Field for the first time since winning the Division 2 state championship in 2010 with former MSU receiver Aaron Burbridge leading the way.
Harrison, which will be closing its doors after the 2018-19 school year, helped make John Herrington the state’s all-time winningest coach (435-107-1) and now he is in search of winning his 14th state championship. He has made all the right moves, inserting Rod Heard at running back and moving Notre Dame-bound Ovie Oghoufo from outside linebacker to inside linebacker so Divine Filemu could move to defensive tackle.
Harrison opened the postseason with a 45-14 win over Warren Fitzgerald before moving on with wins over Warren Woods Tower (33-0), Linden (34-21) and Riverview (21-0) in the semifinal.
Players to watch:
La’Darius Jefferson, Sr., QB, Muskegon: Jefferson is a strong-armed quarterback who can run past or over defenders with his size (6-2, 215). He has rushed for 1,850 yards (194 carries) and 29 TDs while throwing for 1,200 yards and 21 TDs. He was at his best in the semifinal win over Harper Creek, running for 179 yards and four TDs while also throwing a TD pass.
Rod Heard, Sr., RB, Farmington Hills Harrison: Heard took over the bulk of the running since Week 2, piling up 1,490 yards and 23 TDs, also showing his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He scored on a 64-yard run and a 30-yard pass in the semifinal win over Riverview. He has multiple Division 1 offers as a defensive back.
How Muskegon can win:
Muskegon has the ability to not only win, but win big because it has a mammoth offensive line, along with a talented leader in Jefferson. And Jefferson has multiple weapons to work with, including running backs Lonnie Clark and Clinton Jefferson Jr., and don’t forget the Big Reds’ defense that has forced more than 30 turnovers, including 20 interceptions to turn the field in a hurry.
How Harrison can win:
It has one of the top coaches in the state in Herrington, who knows how to win on the big stage. Harrison has some playmakers in Heard and Oghoufo and a quarterback in Noah Hendricks who has elevated his game. The Hawks have to stay close to Muskegon for a quarter, then hopefully force a turnover and make a big play or two to get some momentum heading into halftime to have a chance of pulling off the upset.
Muskegon has too much talent and big game experience, accustomed to playing at Ford Field, and the players are motivated to bring home the ultimate trophy after suffering a heartbreaking loss last year. Look for Jefferson to close out his career with a prime-time effort in his return trip to the NFL stadium. Muskegon, 35-20
Grand Rapids West Catholic (11-2) vs. Saginaw Swan Valley (12-1), Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
Grand Rapids West Catholic breakdown:
Grand Rapids West Catholic is making its sixth consecutive trip to Ford Field, looking to earn its fifth straight title to continue to build on its dynasty. But West Catholic’s return has been anything but easy, especially the last two weeks when it had to pull out a 28-26 regional final win over Portland, then a 25-21 semifinal victory over Frankenmuth, coming back from a 21-0 first-half deficit.
West Catholic has averaged nearly 40 points a game and has an experienced dual-threat quarterback in Gaetano Vallone, who has thrown for nearly 2,500 yards and 30 TDs and rushed for 850 and 14 TDs. His primary weapon is receiver Nick Dorato (14 TD receptions), who hauled in a 70-yard TD pass from Vallone, then a 33-yarder to set up another score in the semifinal victory.
Saginaw Swan Valley breakdown:
Saginaw Swan Valley piled up the points on its way to the state semifinals, earning one-sided victories over Bridgeport (59-22), Carrollton (42-7) and Muskegon Oakridge (48-14) before defeating Reed City 29-14 in the semifinals.
Swan Valley received great news with the return of running back Emmett Boehler, who suffered a knee injury in the postseason opener, then missed the next two games before returning for the semifinal, rushing for 125 yards (24 carries) and a TD.
Swan Valley’s defense has forced turnovers and none was bigger than when the Vikings pounced on a fumble at their own 40 and took advantage of the short field by scoring on the 60-yard drive to put the game away and punch their ticket to Ford Field.
Players to watch:
Gaetano Vallone, Sr., QB, West Catholic: Vallone loves playing at Ford Field, rushing for 115 yards and throwing for a TD in a 40-34 state final win over River Rouge in 2015, then completing 13-of-20 passes for 311 yards and four TDs last year in a 43-7 rout of Menominee.
Emmett Boehler, Sr., RB, Swan Valley: Boehler was impressive in his return, but it should have been no surprise as he has piled up 1,583 yards and 15 TDs despite missing two games with the injury. If Boehler is fully healthy, Swan Valley’s offense will have a chance to run at a high level.
How West Catholic can win:
West Catholic has also showed its ability to battle through adversity to come back from large deficits to pull out wins. It has a big weapon in kicker Liam Putz, who has kicked field goals in the last two state championship games, including a 47-yarder last year.
How Swan Valley can win:
The return of Boehler takes pressure away from quarterback Alex Fries and opens up the passing game with Fries getting a better chance of finding big-play receivers Terryon Liddell and Ethan Champney.
Expect Vallone to end his career in style, scoring TDs with his arm and legs to help West Catholic make history, earning its fifth straight state championship, matching Farmington Hills Harrison (1997-2001) and East Grand Rapids (2006-2010). West Catholic 30-20
Saugatuck (10-3) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (12-1), Saturday, 10 a.m.
Saugatuck entered postseason play with a 6-3 record, then grinded out its way to the Motor City, starting with an impressive 47-21 win over Springport, followed by a 14-8 district title win over Vermontville Maple Valley, then a 7-6 regional final win over Cassopolis and a 14-7 upset semifinal victory over talented quarterback Austin Brown and Madison Heights Madison.
Saugatuck’s strong defense is led by linebacker Reece Schreckengust and end Bryson Davis, who helped shut down Cassopolis and Madison, teams that were averaging 40-plus points.
QB Jackson Shriver is playing well, completing 6-of-9 for 90 yards in the regional final win, finding Cooper Myers for a 41-yard TD with under three minutes left to wipe out a 6-0 deficit, then throwing a 44-yard TD toss to Bradley Dunn and running for another score in the semifinal win.
Pewamo-Westphalia has advanced to its third straight state title game by being dominant on both sides of the ball. P-W earned wins over Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian (38-7) and New Lothrop (35-14) in the districts before defeating Elkton Pigeon-Bayport (34-0) in the regionals and Lake City (51-8) in the semifinals.
QB Jimmy Lehman has thrown for more than 1,500 yards and 19 TDs while rushing for more than 600 yards and 14 scores. Lehman also plays defensive end, where he has 20 TFLs.
Players to watch:
Bradley Dunn, Jr., RB-DB, Saugatuck: Dunn has piled up more than 2,500 all-purpose yards, rushing for 1,000-plus yards while also returning punts and kickoffs for scores. He had a big 44-yard TD reception to open up a 14-0 cushion in the semifinal victory.
Bryce Thelen, Sr., RB-LB, Pewamo-Westphalia: Thelen has the ability to get things done in all three phases of the game and did just that in the semifinal win, when he returned a punt 40 yards for a TD, scored on a 63-yard run and forced one of five turnovers with an interception.
How Saugatuck can win:
Shriver needs to get the ball in his playmakers’ hands, especially Dunn. Saugatuck’s defense needs to continue its outstanding play and locate Bryce Thelen to prevent him from making big plays.
How Pewamo-Westphalia can win:
P-W has big-game experience, losing to Ishpeming in the title game in 2015 before returning last year to defeat Detroit Loyola. Lehman played like a veteran quarterback in the championship game last year – 127 yards passing, three total TDs – and has used the momentum for a strong showing in ’17, throwing 19 TDs with just four interceptions.
Lehman stole the spotlight from record-breaking teammate Jared Smith in last year’s title game. Look for a repeat effort this time around. P-W, 26-17