Farmington Hills Harrison relishes underdog role

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Farmington Hills — John Herrington has won a lot of big games during his 46 years as head coach at Farmington Hills Harrison, making his way to accept the state championship trophy 13 times at places like the Pontiac Silverdome and Ford Field.

And, the 76-year-old Herrington hopes to hoist the ultimate trophy one more time when he leads Harrison at Ford Field Saturday night in the Division 3 state championship game against unbeaten Muskegon, the No. 2 ranked team in The News Super 20 poll.

Yes, Harrison will be a huge underdog against a Muskegon team loaded with Division I talent, including an offensive line that showcases Penn State-bound Antwan Reed (6-6, 315) and 6-foot-5, 330-pound junior Anthony Bradford who has offers from such top-25 powers as Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.

Oh, and don’t forget big, physical quarterback La’Darius Jefferson who has rushed for 1,850 yards and 29 TDs while also throwing for 1,200 yards and 21 TDs to help Muskegon average 53 points, including a 49-0 regional win over DeWitt and a 42-0 state semifinal victory over previously unbeaten Battle Creek-Harper Creek.

Jefferson has recently been offered by Michigan State.

When asked if Harrison was ever an underdog in its 17 previous state title game appearances, Herrington replied: “Yes, against Muskegon C.C. we were, against Fordson we were, against Grand Rapids Creston we were, that’s off the top of my head. It’s just fun trying to prepare no matter what. It’s the final week and you get to let it all go. I love preparing for it, but it’s really my defensive coaches who are putting in all the hard work right now.

“I mean this is the best week of a kid’s life. They’ll remember it always, for the rest of their life. I’ve been fortunate to be there quite a few times, but for these kids it’s a one-time thing. It’s pretty awesome.”

Harrison owns state title game wins over Muskegon Catholic Central (Class B, 7-0 in ’81), Fordson (Class A, 17-14 2OT in ’82) and Grand Rapids Creston (Division 3, 42-35 in ’99), teams the school entered games as the underdog.

Herrington has made all the right moves this season, inserting junior Rod Heard in at running back after a season-opening 33-8 loss to East Grand Rapids. Heard responded by rushing for 1,490 yards and 23 TDs while also playing well from his defensive back spot.

Herrington also moved Notre Dame-bound linebacker Ovie Oghoufo from outside linebacker to inside linebacker so Rapana Filemu could move back to his usual defensive tackle spot.

“I’ve never even been to Ford Field, so this is real big for me,” Oghoufo said. “We’ve been underdogs the whole playoffs and look where we’re at now. We’re just going to take Muskegon as another opponent and we’re going to go there to get the job done.

“And, this seems like almost the perfect time so Coach (Herrington) will be able to retire on a good note, knowing he was able to make it back one more time, and that the school, that we’re not depressed about the news the school will be closing (following 2019 school year), that we’re still making moves.”

Herrington said Oghoufo had his best game Saturday in a 21-0 semifinal shutout over Riverview.

No doubt, Harrison’s highlight was helping Herrington (435-107-1, 46 years) become the state’s all-time winningest coach in a Week 8 rout of Berkley (39-0), a week after it defeated Oak Park (17-14) which also had a big, physical offensive line that included Kentucky-bound Marquan McCall and four-star junior Justin Rogers who has an offer from Ohio State.

“It’s a great opportunity, definitely one that a high school player dreams to have,” Oghoufo said. “I honestly can’t believe it’s happening right now, we’ve done everything possible to make it happen.”

And, on moving from outside linebacker to inside linebacker?

“It had to be a move that benefited the team and I didn’t have a problem with it,” Oghoufo said. “I needed to do it in order to help our team and to give other people opportunities to make plays and so far it’s been working for the team so I’m happy.

“There’s definitely pros and cons to the move. I get bigger tackles and bigger guards coming at me more and I have to take on more blocks, but on the bright side I can see the play develop better and I can run to the ball and even if I make a little mistake I can still use my speed to get to the other side.”

Oghoufo has high praise for Filemu, saying: “He’s a freak of an athlete at his size, helps taking on two blocks, also goes through two blocks and still makes the play.”

Filemu, who is 5-9, 200 pounds and benches 315 pounds, is thrilled to be back playing defensive tackle. He is also in the backfield, blocking for Heard.

“Rod has had a great year, has a great offensive line in front of him and once they open it up I’ll come through and pick up whoever else and he’ll just break away since he has that good breakaway speed and can break tackles when he needs to,” said Filemu of Heard. “It all starts out with our lineman though, guys like our center John O’Connor and Chris Rexroth.”

So, how can Filemu make plays as an undersized lineman?

“I’m strong for my size and I make sure I’m quick off the ball to get the initial push when guys are bigger than me,” Filemu said. “I’ll just use hand movements to shift their hands from blocking me so I can get in the backfield.”

Filemu is definitely not intimidated by Muskegon’s size and talent.

“They have great talent, but we’ve faced that before, beating Oak Park which was really big with so much potential,” noted Filemu.

And, Harrison has faced a tough schedule which started with East Grand Rapids and included Birmingham Groves, Oak Park and a Clarkston team that will be competing in the Division 1 state title game.

Clarkston defeated Harrison in the regular season finale, 23-12.


All games at Ford Field


Division 8: Ottawa Lake Whiteford (13-0) vs. Saginaw Nouvel (13-0), 10 a.m.

Division 2: Warren De La Salle (11-2) vs. Livonia Franklin (11-2), 1 p.m.

Division 6: Ithaca (13-0) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (11-1), 4:30 p.m.

Division 4: Grand Rapids Catholic Central (13-0) vs. Edwardsburg (12-1), 7:30 p.m.


Division 7: Pewamo-Westphalia (12-1) vs. Saugatuck (10-3), 10 a.m.

Division 1: Clarkston (11-2) vs. West Bloomfield (11-2), 1 p.m.

Division 5: Grand Rapids West Catholic (11-2) vs. Saginaw Swan Valley (12-1), 4:30 p.m.

Division 3: Muskegon (13-0) vs. Farmington Hills Harrison (10-3), 7:30 p.m.