Best of state finals: ‘Chip’ fuels Clarkston to D1 glory
David Goricki of The Detroit News breaks down the best of the high school football state finals.
Kurt Richardson is just finding his groove both on and off the field.
Richardson, who owns a 245-86 record in 31 years as head coach at Clarkston, has enjoyed his best six-year run with a 66-10 record and three state championships, including a 3-2 win over West Bloomfield in the Division 1 state title game Saturday at Ford Field to avenge a 37-16 Oakland Activities Association Red Division loss earlier in the season.
And, while numerous schools are getting talented players who transfer in, Richardson is proud of the fact Clarkston is winning with homegrown kids, and unselfish ones at that.
When talking of senior running back/defensive back Michael Fluegel following the upset win over West Bloomfield, Richardson got emotional.
“He’s going to Columbia, he’s an extremely intelligent kid, a class kid. Again you know a lot of kids if you’d taken away, ‘You’re not the star anymore and (Josh) Cantu is,’ they would have sulked and let it eat at them and you never knew it even happened,” said Richardson, noting that Cantu had the bulk of the carries before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the state semifinals.
“He (Fluegel) played in the slot, he played all the time in the secondary. Again, the unselfishness of these kids is one of the reasons we are where we are (as state champions).”
Fluegel had 11 carries for 41 yards in the title game, and rushed for 855 yards for the season. He also made four tackles while breaking up two passes from his secondary position against a star-studded receiving trio that included Wisconsin-bound receivers Taj Mustapha and A.J. Abbott, and junior Tre Mosley, who has multiple Division 1 offers.
Richardson feels Clarkston was disrespected coming into the title game.
“The kids had a chip on their shoulder and that got them going and no one gave us much of a chance. I’m hearing 49-7 and all of that stuff and I think the coaches took the challenge, too,” Richardson said. “I think going into the first week of the playoffs. I don’t want to say bad blood, but there were some things going on between us and Davison. They absolutely spanked us in the summer, embarrassed us in the 7-on-7. Our kids, we kept hearing all of this crap and everything, and they came out and shut them out (28-0) and I think that’s really when they started thinking, OK (maybe a long run is possible).
“Kids played with a chip on their shoulder because they didn’t feel like people were giving the respect we deserved. We played some good football teams to get here.”
So, what was the difference between the first game, the one-sided loss to West Bloomfield and the rematch?
“We changed our coverages and we wanted to bring heat, that’s kind of the philosophy we went with and we didn’t turn it over, last time we had four turnovers,” Richardson said. “Our little guys in the secondary also rose to the occasion.”
Clarkston forced three turnovers (two interceptions and a fumble) in the rematch.
The loss to West Bloomfield came on Sept. 15 in Week 4, and Clarkston’s two freshmen offensive linemen Garrett Dellinger (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) and Rocco Spindler (6-4, 250), son of former Lions defensive lineman Marc Spindler, continued to develop.
“Those two guys, they’re freshmen by age, but I’ll tell you they’re very mature and great football players,” Richardson said. “Dellie (Dellinger), his family, all of his brothers played for us and Rocco Spindler, he has a pretty good bloodline, and they matured and they’re one of the reasons we got better. To start, they were ninth graders, but now they’re not.”
And, the off the field stuff? Well, Clarkston’s players dyed their hair blond and Richardson and his coaching staff followed suit for the first time.
“They’ve done it for years and then this year they put the heat on the coaches, so Monday night all the coaches got together and got it done,” Richardson said. “We had a beautician come in and all the coaches were right there and laughing at each other. It was great. Blondes have more fun.”
They certainly did on Saturday afternoon in the Division 1 state championship game.
Madigan’s call to Pfromm results in state title for De La Salle
Linebacker Brendan Madigan felt privileged to be on the field as a freshman when Warren De La Salle won the Division 2 state championship in 2014.
It was then that he made a promise to himself that he would do everything possible to return to Ford Field for another chance to celebrate a state championship in a larger role with the team.
Well, Madigan returned a fumble 13 yards for a touchdown on the game’s first play from scrimmage Friday afternoon to help De La Salle to a 41-6 victory over Livonia Franklin.
But, Madigan’s biggest accomplishment actually took place last winter when he persuaded quarterback Luke Pfromm to come out for football during his senior year.
“I can honestly call him one of my best friends and I knew right after basketball season last year that we were going to need him, and right after he lost his last game I called him up and let him know how I felt and that I wanted him to play football,” Madigan said. “Shortly after, it was still cold out, it was freezing, we were going to the field and he was throwing, just to get him going, get him comfortable, so I’m really happy he came out.”
Pfromm directed a game-winning 85-yard touchdown drive in the final minute of a 14-7 regional final win over Oak Park, then found Jacob Badalamenti for a 44-yard touchdown pass in the 14-13 state semifinal win over two-time defending state champion Detroit King.
And on Friday, Pfromm had a career-best performance, completing 10 of 12 passes for 207 yards and two scores, finding Evan Vaillancourt three times for 140 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown to open up a 14-0 lead.
“We lost to Troy in the playoffs for basketball and Brendan called me that night and said, ‘We want you to play, we need you to play,’ ” Pfromm said of the call that changed De La Salle’s program, going from 4-5 a year ago to bringing home the state trophy. “I think it was a Friday or Saturday night that I got the call after the season ended and we were on the field Sunday. Brendan and I knocked the rust off. We were out there for a few hours. We got at it a couple of weekends in a row.
“Obviously, the result speaks for itself. We get the ring and everything, but the most special thing for me is having this experience with my brothers.”
And, De La Salle’s defense was special, limiting opponents to a combined total of 26 points during the five playoff games, starting with consecutive shutouts of Ferndale (46-0) and Port Huron Northern (50-0).
Jefferson helps Muskegon finally seal the deal
Muskegon made the trip to Ford Field again and again and again, only to return back home frustrated from losing in the state championship game.
A lot had happened since Tony Annese guided Muskegon to the Division 2 state championship in 2008, his third state title (2004, 2006) in five years. Annese then left to coach in college, first guiding Grand Rapids Junior College to two Junior College national titles in three years before leading Ferris State to multiple GLIAC titles and a national semifinal run last year.
Since Annese’s departure, Muskegon advanced to Division 2 state finals in 2012 and 2013, only to lose to Al Fracassa’s Birmingham Brother Rice both times, then lost to George Porritt’s Orchard Lake St. Mary’s program in Division 3 in 2014 and last year on the game’s final play.
On Saturday night, senior quarterback La’Darius Jefferson made sure history wouldn’t repeat itself as he rushed for 245 yards and four touchdowns out of the wildcat formation to defeat Farmington Hills Harrison, 28-10, and prevent legendary coach John Herrington from winning his 14th state title.
“It means a lot, this state championship isn’t mine, it’s my teammates,” said Jefferson who finished the season with 2,095 yards and 33 total touchdowns. “This is the best one (game). It’s the best one because I got these boys what they deserve, got them a state championship so my season’s a success now.”
So, what’s next for Jefferson? He de-committed from Central Florida, feeling head coach Scott Frost could leave to possibly take over at his alma mater, Nebraska. Jefferson has received a recent offer from Michigan State and Georgia Tech is also in the mix.
“What an amazing young man,” Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said. “He is just a selfless kid that loves to win, that loves family, he’s driven by his relationships in his home and he loves his teammates. He was more vocal and determined this week to get this win.”
When asked where he thought Jefferson could end up, Fairfield responded: “Georgia Tech is the big one right now and Paul Johnson, that’s right up his alley, but I know he wants to stay close to home.”
Herrington pleased with F.H. Harrison’s effort
Herrington became the winningest head coach in state history earlier this season when Farmington Hills Harrison defeated Berkley for win No. 431, topping the former mark held by Brother Rice’s Fracassa.
Herrington, 76, led Harrison to its record 18th state championship game appearance against Muskegon, but fell short of hoisting his 14th state trophy.
Herrington was thrilled to be at Ford Field after feeling Harrison, which will close its doors following the 2019 school year, possibly wouldn’t even make the playoffs prior to a Week 7 upset win over Oak Park to improve to 5-2.
“It’s one of our best ever considering we didn’t think we’d make the playoffs at one time, and to make it this far was fantastic,” said Herrington, who is now looking forward to Year No. 49 at Harrison knowing he has junior running back Rod Heard and junior Ben Williams returning.
Williams returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a score, becoming just the second player in state finals history to return the opening kick for a score. He also returned another kick 56 yards to the Muskegon 26, but Harrison failed to capitalize. Heard finished the season with 1,538 yards and 23 touchdowns, but was limited to 48 yards on nine carries in the title game.
“Yes, I’ll be back for the last year and it will be a tough year,” Herrington said. “We’re not going to have a lot of guys, maybe 25, but we’re going to put a team together and have some fun.”
Fugate makes most of his second chance at Ford Field
Grand Rapids Catholic Central defeated Detroit Country Day, 10-7, to win the Division 4 state championship last season, but Nolan Fugate was held to 14 yards on 11 carries.
Fugate was motivated to make his return trip to Ford Field a better one to end his prep career. And, Fugate made sure it happened, piling up 306 yards on 36 carries and four touchdowns, and grabbing four passes for 86 yards and another score in GRCC’s 42-31 victory over Edwardsburg in the Division 4 state title game.
Fugate finished with 3,004 yards rushing, becoming just the second player in state history to top the 3,000-yard mark in a single season. His 306 yards was just a yard shy of the state finals rushing record.
Fugate finished just ahead of Saginaw Swan Valley’s Alex Grace, who ran for 2,962 yards in 12 games in 2013, and right behind Pewamo-Westphalia’s Jared Smith, who gained 3,250 yards in 14 games in 2014.
Fugate helped GRCC to a perfect 14-0 season, running behind an offensive line that included Michigan-bound Jalen Mayfield.
“I was definitely motivated and knew that last year I didn’t play good at all,” Fugate said. “I had a chip on my shoulder and I wanted to come out and play the best I could.”
Mission accomplished. Fugate scored his first touchdown on a 20-yard reception from Jack Bowen, then scored on runs of 1, 5, 54 and 32 yards.
And Fugate’s best reception came on a third-and-28 play from the GRCC 33, just after Edwardsburg scored on a pair of long runs (78 and 90 yards) to pull within 35-31 with more than eight minutes left.
Bowen scrambled left, threw a pass up for grabs and Fugate went up and grabbed it, getting one foot inbounds.
“On the long third down, I just saw Jack leave the pocket and I was running my route and knew I had to get open,” Fugate said. “I just kind of boxed my guy out, said throw the ball and just did my best to make a play on the ball and came down with it.”
Grand Rapids West Catholic makes history in D5
Ford Field gets the best out of Gaetano Vallone.
Vallone has been the starting quarterback in three of those titles. He ran for 115 yards and threw for a touchdown in a 40-34 win over River Rouge in 2014, then completed 13 of 20 passes for 311 yards and four scores in a 43-7 victory over Menominee last year.
In his finale, Vallone connected on 10 of 14 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for 60 yards and a score.
Vallone set the tempo by finding Nick Dorato for a 49-yard pass play on third-and-12 from the West Catholic 18 to set up the first score, a 32-yard toss to Zack Lee.
”“It (experience) helped me a lot,” Vallone said. “Ford Field is a huge stage, playoffs are always a big game for us and with that experience I think that really helped me calm myself down and the others around me.”
Swan Valley coach Kevin Gavenda said he wanted to start the game with his defense.
“Well, we have faith in our defense, it carried us all year and if we make that cover on that deep pass we’re getting a punt, but it didn’t turn out well for us,” said Gavenda. “He (Vallone) can do a little bit of everything. He can throw the ball extremely well, he runs extremely well and obviously three years in the system he knows the system extremely well. He’s played 42 games as the starting quarterback for a football team, that’s a lot of experience.”
West Catholic became the first team to earn five straight state titles since East Grand Rapids won five straight in Division 3 from 2006-10. Farmington Hills Harrison is the lone other team to have accomplished the feat from 1997-2001.
Brogan closing in on the great ones
Herb Brogan has guided Jackson Lumen Christi to consecutive Division 6 state championships, giving him 343 career wins and eight state titles in a coaching career that started in 1980.
Brogan has enjoyed a long list of outstanding running backs, including Khari Willis, Bo Bell and Sebastian Toland this decade.
Bell rushed for 238 yards and a touchdown in last year’s 26-14 win over Maple City Glen Lake.
On Friday, Toland picked up 244 yards and a score on 33 carries in a 40-34 win over Ithaca.
Lumen Christi’s running attack was never better, piling up 514 yards for the third-best rushing effort in state finals history. Kyle Minder rushed for 206 yards and three touchdowns, and the team would have held the record if not for a holding penalty wiping out an 80-yard touchdown run by Toland.
When asked if he was just excited with the state championship wins now at age 68 as he was with his first back in 1996, Brogan replied: “I get as much satisfaction. I don’t know if you get as much excitement because you get to a point where you start feeling more a sense of relief than anything else. It’s just great working with these kids.”
Brogan has no plans on calling it a career.
“I plan to coach as long as I feel good,” Brogan said. “I’ve coached No. 80’s grandfather, Hunter Denton’s grandpa, Greg Denton. It’s nice knowing the family so you know what to expect. I coached Bo Bell’s dad, too, coached a lot of second generation players.”
Brogan ranks No. 5 in the state in career wins and is tied for fourth in state titles with the late Ron Thompson of Detroit de Porres.