The state playoffs get under way this weekend with predistrict games.
And there’s no bigger one than No. 11 Saline playing at No. 2 Belleville in a Division 1 showdown at noon Saturday.
Belleville has won 33 straight regular-season games, earning its first state playoff game in 15 years in 2017, then earning its first regional title in program history last season.
Now, Belleville, loaded with Division I stars, has its sights on a state title, but first will have to get by a Saline team which ended Belleville’s season back in 2016, 38-7, in a pre-district game at Saline.
Belleville (9-0) has averaged 43.5 points this season with three-year starting quarterback Christian Dhue-Reid running the offense with multiple weapons to work with behind a mammoth line, led by four-star junior Damon Payne (6-foot-4, 290), along with three-star junior Ramier Lewis (6-7, 340) and Indiana-bound Coleon Smith (6-6, 340).
“To beat Belleville, we have to slow down their big play attack and find a way to move the ball against a great defense,” said coach Joe Palka, who has guided Saline to a 79-13 record the past eight years, including a Division 1 state championshp game appearance, a 33-25 loss to Clarkston in 2014, and a state semifinal run last year, ending with a 21-2 loss to Clarkston.
“We have to be creative but sound. We start six sophomores at times, so we have to make sure we are minimal with mistakes.”
One of those sophomores is Larry Robinson who split time at QB the first half of the season before taking over the starting role. He has completed 78 percent of his passes for 1,143 yards and 15 TDs, rushing for 502 yards, 10 yards per carry, and 11 TDs.
“Where’s Palka been hiding him,” Belleville coach Jermain Crowell said of Robinson, whose primary target is Kolton Malinczak (58 receptions, 815 yards, nine TDs). “He’s electric, real fast and throws a good ball.”
Saline (8-1), whose lone loss came to defending Division 1 state champion Chippewa Valley, 35-21, in the opener, has averaged 44 points, including 52 the last three games.
Both teams have been able to pull out numerous close games, KLAA champion Belleville earning fourth-quarterback comeback wins at Dearborn Fordson (20-19) and Livonia Franklin (39-29), while SEC Red champion Saline got past Monroe (28-14) and Temperance Bedford (24-21) in consecutive games, Week 5 and 6.
Pick: Belleville by 8
Other top games
►Warren De La Salle (5-4) at Birmingham Groves (7-2), 7 p.m. Friday
This is a rematch of last year’s Division 2 state semifinal, won by De La Salle, 28-0, en route to De La Salle repeating as state champ.
De La Salle entered 7-2 during its state title runs the last two years, but suffered losses to No. 1 Muskegon (41-7), Birmingham Brother Rice (16-14), No. 8 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (16-14) and No. 4 West Bloomfield (16-8) this season.
Groves earned a win over then-No. 1 West Bloomfield (24-17) in Week 2, but has suffered losses to Oak Park (26-14) and No. 15 Woodhaven last Friday, 49-28 after entering the fourth quarter tied at 28.
“Someone has to knock them off, it may as well be us,” said Groves coach Brendan Flaherty. “They’re really, really good and they have the experience and all of that stuff with a few of those guys back from last year. We’re excited to get them at home. We have to have some success on offense, stay on schedule and hold the ball and make some plays and get them out of what they want to do, make them throw the ball a bit.”
Flaherty loves the fact that he has experience at quarterback in Markis Alexander.
“Markis has the experience for us as a three-year varsity player, so he is cool as a cucumber and I think he can make accurate throws which would be big for us," he said. "It’s just a comfortable feeling having a guy out there that’s really knowledgeable and understands, has a good feel for what we want to do.”
Pick: Groves by 4
►U-D Jesuit (6-3) at North Farmington (9-0), 1 p.m. Saturday
North Farmington earned its first 9-0 regular season since 1978, when it advanced to the Class A state title game, losing to Traverse City Central.
Yes, Jon Herstein and his staff, including former Farmington Hills Harrison head coach John Herrington (443 wins, 13 state championships), Mill Coleman and Dave Thorne, have done a great job in Year 1.
Now, the postseason starts and North Farmington will be going up against Catholic League champion U-D Jesuit, led by three-star receiver Carson Hinton who has offers from Purdue, Syracuse, Cincinnati and multiple MAC schools.
“They have good athletes, they’re well coached and have a good offensive line so it should be a fun game,” Herstein said of U-D Jesuit.
So, what has North Farmington done well?
“I think we’ve played really good defense, kind of a bend but don’t break defense, offensively we’ve been able to run the ball and throw the ball well,” Herstein said. “When we’ve needed the run, we’ve been able to, so it’s been a nice, balanced attack.”
Junior Jacob Bousamra has thrown for 1,952 yards and 23 TDs, completing 68 percent of his passes for North Farmington.
Pick: North Farmington by 2
►Livonia Churchill (5-4) at Dexter (8-1), 7 p.m. Friday
Churchill’s secondary will have a challenge, going up against Dexter’s outstanding junior quarterback Collin Parachek and big-play receivers Antwan Ficklen and Rhett Jacobs.
Sure, Churchill has lost four games, but the losses have come at the hands of Brighton (21-7), No. 2 Belleville (35-14), No. 6 Dearborn Fordson (42-28) and No. 16 Livonia Franklin (49-48), bouncing back to win its final four games, including two shutouts, to make the state playoffs.
“They’ve been averaging 50 points and have a good quarterback and good receivers, but we have athletes who are talented in our secondary,” Churchill coach Bill DeFillipo said. “We’ve been through the wars in our league, and have won our last four games after getting off to a slow start so we’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.
"Gavin Brooks is playing well for us at quarterback and Shane Morelli has eight receiving touchdowns.”
Pick: Dexter by 2 (OT)
►Detroit Cass Tech (5-4) at Grosse Pointe South (7-2), 7 p.m. Friday
Cass Tech looked like its run of 11 straight postseason appearances would come to an end after suffering a 25-20 loss to Detroit Renaissance to fall to 2-4 back on Oct. 4, but Thomas Wilcher’s team won three straight to punch its postseason ticket while outscoring its opponents by a 130-20 margin, including a 49-14 rout of Clarkston Friday.
South’s lone losses came to Birmingham Groves (34-21) in the season opener and to No. 13 Romeo (38-20) last Friday.
Cass Tech, which is 3-0 in the series with South, has won at least one playoff game the last 11 years, earning Division 1 state titles in 2011, ’12 and ’16.
Pick: South by 6