Detroit — With an enrollment of 232, no one will mistake Reading High School in far south-central Michigan for being a big school. But on Friday at Ford Field, its football team once again proved it can win big games, soaring over Beal City with an authoritative 33-6 victory for its second straight Division 8 state title.
While offense carried Reading (13-1) for most of this season, it was its defense that was most impressive in the championship game.
“Our guys played extremely hard,” Reading coach Rick Bailey said. “Our defense was outstanding all day. Beal City had tremendous defense. They had a great game plan in the first half, but we were able to make an adjustment in the second half. We started pulling our guard and that got us rolling.”
Beal City (12-2) had averaged 32.5 points per game in the playoffs, but Reading only allowed 157 yards to Beal City and forced three turnovers, constricting Beal City’s offense to a scant six points.
Senior Reading linebacker Ben Affholter patrolled the middle of the field, racking up a several big hits on 10 total tackles, 4.5 for loss.
“We worked hard over the summer, but when we lost in our first game it lit a fire under us and told us what it took to make it back here, so we really wanted it,” Affholter said.
It wasn’t the big game that Reading quarterback and linebacker Porter Mauk has grown accustomed to, but the junior was still relatively efficient on the offensive side of the ball, going 3-for-6 passing for 55 yards and two touchdowns. Mauk finished the season with a completion percentage of 61.0 for 933 yards and 10 touchdowns.
The running back duo of seniors Elijah Strine and Hunter Midtgard got loose for Reading in the second half. Strine finished with 73 yards on 12 carries, a 6.1-yard average, with one touchdown, and Midtgard had 68 yards on 12 rushes, a 5.6-yard average, with one rushing touchdown and one receiving.
“Our offensive line got off the ball,” Bailey said. “We have the biggest and best offensive line in Division 8.”
Reading's Rick Bailey, Ben Affholter, Elijah Strine, Hunter Midtgard and Nick Affholter talk about their team's Division 8 title win over Beal City on Friday. Eric Coughlin, The Detroit News
Reading’s upper-classmen relished being leaders, stepping into roles filled by last season’s seniors.
“It was our team this year,” Midtgard said. “We had seniors, and we had leaders.”
“We left a mark,” senior lineman Nick Affholter said. “When we came through this year we wanted to prove a point that this was our team and leave a legacy about who we were, finish the job.”
“That was our message from the beginning,” Bailey said. “All year long we talked to the team about not being defending state champions. Earn your own legacy. We came through a really tough playoff run. We played many longtime, established contenders. Cassopolis had only given up two scores all season. Our opponents were worthy and our kids answered the bell.”
Beal City established itself as a ball-control team this season, with five running backs combining for more than 2,400 yards and as a team only averaging a handful of passes per game, so when it got behind by two scores toward the end of the third quarter, Reading firmly took control and Beal City didn’t have an answer.
“They can’t put all five backs on the field at the same time,” Bailey said. “We had a great game plan and we executed. We just try to take away what they do best.”
Beal City would have liked a more favorable result, but it still had a great season. After winning a state title in 2009, Beal City made the finals in 2012, ’13 and ’14 but had suffered a 2-7 season last year. The finals appearance was the first for fifth-year coach Brad Gross.
“I’m proud of our kids,” Gross said. “They played their hearts out. I thought we had them right where we wanted them at halftime, but we just didn’t make the plays today. Hats off to Reading. They’re a great football team.”
Reading struck first. After Mauk collected a Beal City fumble, he then threw an 18-yard touchdown to senior tight end Jayson Scoville on a fade route. A successful two-point conversion put Reading up, 8-0.
Later in the first quarter, the MHSAA got to roll out its video review for the first time ever. A new policy in 2019 for the state championship games, the video review determined that Reading defensive back David Bignell had made a successful interception after initially being ruled out of bounds. The review was initiated by the booth and seemed to be an easy call for the replay official, only taking a couple minutes.
Beal City's Brad Gross, Jack Schafer, Trey Small and T.J. Maxon talk about their team's Division 8 title game loss to Reading on Friday. Eric Coughlin, The Detroit News
In the second quarter, Beal City got its only score of the game, a 56-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Jack Schafer to junior running back T.J. Maxon on a wheel route. The two-point conversion attempt failed, so Reading still led, 8-6.
“We were disappointed that we gave up the touchdown in the wheel route,” Bailey said. “That’s something we’ve practiced. That kid (Maxon) was faster than what we gave him credit for, despite knowing his 100 (meter dash) time, but he showed real football speed out there.”
Later in the second quarter, Reading had driven to Beal City’s 40-yard line, but there were only 29 seconds left in the half. That’s when Mauk found Midtgard streaking toward the end zone in the middle of the field, wide open. Mauk lofted the ball to Midtgard over Beal City’s defense for the score, and after a failed two-point conversion attempt, Reading went into half with a 14-6 lead.
In the third quarter, Reading engineered a 10-play, 53-yard drive capped by a 9-yard scoring run by Strine for a 20-6 lead. Moments later, Midtgard scored on a 29-yard scamper to put things out of reach for Beal City, 26-6.
In the fourth quarter, Reading embarked on a 13-play, 80-yard drive that chewed up 7:36 and ended with a 12-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Matthew Stewart, putting Reading up, 33-6, the final score.
All games at Ford Field
Division 8: Reading 33, Beal City 6
Division 2: Muskegon Mona Shores 35, Detroit King 26
Division 6: Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central 7, Maple City Glen Lake 0
Division 4: Grand Rapids Catholic Central 44, Detroit Country Day 0
Division 7: Pewamo-Westphalia (13-0) vs. Jackson Lumen Christi (12-0), 10 a.m. (FSD)
Division 1: Brighton (11-2) vs. Davison (11-2), 1 p.m. (FSD)
Division 5: Lansing Catholic (12-1) vs. Almont (13-0), 4:30 p.m. (FSD Plus)
Division 3: Muskegon (13-0) vs. River Rouge (12-1), 7:30 p.m. (FSD Plus)
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.