Clinton Township — Clinton Township Chippewa Valley was a play away from winning a regional championship last year, motivating the players to take care of unfinished business during its run playoff toward the Division 1 state championship.
“Our mantra has kind of been, ‘Every play matters, every second counts,’ and you can’t take any plays off,” Chippewa Valley head coach Scott Merchant said of his team's 32-26 regional final loss to Detroit Cass Tech last season.
“It was tough, definitely tough. We took the lead with a minute and a half to go, then they came down and hit a 50-yard bomb with the kid (DeAndre Square) now at Kentucky who made an unbelievable catch. We stopped them twice and then they went up and over on third down, the (Jaren) Mangham kid.”
It looked like a rematch between the teams was set, but Dearborn Fordson had other plans, pulling off a 41-14 upset at Cass Tech in a district final last weekend.
Instead, No. 2 Chippewa Valley (11-0) will be playing host to No. 12 Fordson (10-1) Friday night in search of its first regional championship since 2003 when it defeated Fordson, 30-12. Fordson’s last regional championship came in 2008.
“Fordson has a really good team, obviously have a great tradition. They are big, they are physical and well-coached," Merchant said. "It’s interesting because we went down there (Fordson) this summer for a 7-on-7 and four of the teams there were us, Fordson, West Bloomfield and Belleville. We all played each other and we played Fordson in the semis and then Belleville in the finals. It was great competition.
“Really, for us whether we played Cass Tech or them it didn’t matter because that’s the next team we have to play and it’s a one-game season — you win you move on and if you don’t the season’s over. Our kids have been in this game before. They know what it takes and know how close we were. I think they are pretty hungry to get past that point.”
No. 14 West Bloomfield (9-2) will be playing at No. 4 Belleville (11-0) Friday night in another regional final.
Merchant feels good about how Chippewa Valley is playing heading into the regional, allowing just 17 points the last three games, including a 34-7 pre-district win over Utica Eisenhower and a 51-10 rout of Macomb Dakota in the district final.
And Merchant feels confident with three-year starter Tommy Schuster as his quarterback. Schuster has completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,270 yards and 20 touchdowns with just one interception.
Schuster threw just six passes in the district final, not needing to go to the air with Chippewa Valley piling up more than 400 yards on the ground behind an offensive line anchored by juniors Charles Wesley (6-foot-2, 255 pounds) and Donovan McBride (6-2, 275) and senior center Ryan Cyrowski (5-10, 220).
“It’s great to have a kid like Tommy Schuster who is so efficient and just wants to win,” Merchant said. “We ask him to do so many things. He’s reading, he’s checking plays, he’s checking protection. Sometimes he’s got two or three different reads on one play and that’s why, to me, he’s going to be a great college quarterback. He’s a good athlete, rushed for more than 1,000 yards for his career.
“He’s unflappable, just has unbelievable poise. When things break down, he can extend plays or pull it down and run or pull it down and keep his eyes downfield and when the defense comes out of coverage pop it over their head, and those are the things you can’t teach as a coach. He’s a winner.”
Merchant knew he had a strong nucleus in three-year starters Schuster, Michigan State-bound linebacker/tight end Marcel Lewis, Indiana-bound receiver/cornerback David Ellis and Ja’Von Kimpson (Miami of Ohio), along with physical running back/linebacker Andre Chenault.
“Those five guys we knew were really, really good coming back, but it’s all those guys around them that filled in and made us a good team,” Merchant said. “We had to replace all five offensive linemen this year and three are juniors and one is a sophomore. Our one senior, Ryan Cyrowski, started one game as a junior so you’re talking about five completely new guys in there with Ryan, our senior and captain doing a great job at center, anchored our line and is the leader of that group.
“We’ve been really successful rushing the ball. Obviously, we have good backs, but even they need holes. Andre Chenault is the most physical back I’ve ever coached. He’s 5-foot-7 and 195 pounds and where most backs run to daylight he likes to run to darkness, run right over you.”
Chenault has rushed for 888 yards and 13 TDs, and is averaging 8.3 yards a carry. Ellis has scored 15 TDs, including six receiving TDs, and Martice Bunting has seven TD catches.
Chippewa Valley practiced Tuesday afternoon in wet, windy conditions with temperatures near 50 degrees.
When asked if he was hoping for better conditions Friday, Lewis replied: “I don’t care. I’ll play in any weather. I’ll play wherever coach wants me to. I love him. If he wants me to play D-end, I will. Tight end, sure. Then of course linebacker.
"I play defensive end on third down. I’ve caught five TDs, too. We have a lot of impact players and I'm lucky to be one of them. You can’t just key on just stopping one of us, and I feel Tommy Schuster is the best quarterback in the state.
“It’s going to be a big game. We know Fordson’s a good team and we’re a good team, so it should be a good matchup. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Chippewa Valley’s defense is better than a year ago and tougher than back in 2014 when it gave up 404 yards rushing to Mike Weber in a 48-35 loss to Cass Tech, a regional final game where it trailed 40-35 in the fourth quarter.
Merchant said he made a move during the final week of the regular season to go with four linebackers, moving Chenault from his safety position to join Lewis, Jonathan Zak and Courtney McGarity.
“We play with basically four linebackers, made that switch three weeks ago and our defense has played lights out,” Merchant said. “It’s a four-man front, but we play with 3-4 personnel so we have more speed and athleticism and those are four of our most physical guys.
“We also have a player in senior Alex Gibson, who is 6-5 and 350 pounds, very athletic and getting the job done at nose guard. He’s been a nice surprise for us.”
Chenault is looking forward to the challenge against Fordson.
“Our team is playing really good, played well the last two playoff games,” Chenault. “We have a lot of physical players who fly to the ball defensively. We get all 11 guys to the ball, so it’s hard to run against us, hard to pass against us.”