Ithaca looks to rebound from a disappointing finish in 2016 and return to the state finals
By Dawn Parker
Ithaca – Ithaca’s football team has made it to Ford Field six of the last seven seasons. Over the last eight seasons, the Yellowjackets' losses have been few.
Coach Terry Hessbrook says a veteran corps of players, including nine starters, are hungry for that kind of success again this season.
Their quest to return to the state finals begins on Aug. 24, at home, when the Yellowjackets play Clare.
Ithaca was the dominant team in Division 6 recently. The Yellowjackets won 69 consecutive games, three short of Hudson’s state-record 72, won four consecutive titles (2010-13) and won the program’s fifth in 2015. The Yellowjackets' most recent loss, 28-20 in last year's Division 5 region final to Frankenmuth, stung. Last season was Ithaca’s first competing in Division 5.
“It was certainly different,” Hessbrook said. “To say that we were happy about that, getting to 11-1 and then getting bumped off in the regional final? No, we weren't happy.
“The goal has remained the same over the last several years and hopefully will continue to be the same. We advanced to Ford Field for six consecutive years, and we were disappointed last year when we weren't able to accomplish that achievement.”
Motivation for this season isn't hard to find.
“We have a goal and we didn't achieve that goal,” Hessbrook said. “The guys are hungry to do what some of the teams before them were able to do. Whether we're able to do them or not, that remains to be seen. They've put in a ton of work, and so we're excited about this upcoming season.”
Some of that optimism comes from veteran leadership on both sides of the ball. Hessbrook said he plans to dress 20 seniors, including six who played as sophomores.
“A year ago when I looked in the huddle there were a lot of new faces. Now there are a lot of old faces,” Hessbrook joked.
“They've all grown up.”
Senior quarterback Joey Bentley is one of those three-year starters.
“(He’s a) very intelligent young man, very athletic. I think he's the guy who makes it all happen,” Hessbrook said of Bentley, who is weighing a scholarship offer from Hillsdale.
At 6-foot-4, senior Adam Culp is the Yellowjackets’ top receiver as well as a Division 1 prospect as a place kicker.
“Adam is a special, special talent at kicking the football,” Hessbrook said.
Other key returners include senior receiver/outside linebackers Seth Davis and Trey Chapin. Senior defensive back/receiver Colton Campbell is another three-year varsity player who returns after missing most of last season with a broken collarbone.
Offensive line stalwarts include seniors Nik Jones and Nathan Bellinger. A first-team All-State selection in 2016, Bellinger also plays on the defensive line. He led the team with over 100 tackles.
Zach Hessbrook, a linebacker and fullback, offensive linemen Seth Hessbrook and Ethan McCormick are among two-year starters.
Zach and Seth Hessbrook are the sons of one of Terry Hessbrook's nephews.
Zach Hessbrook said the team learned a lot from last season's early exit. He knows success is not guaranteed.
“We felt like we let (past Ithaca teams) down,” Zach Hessbrook said. “I made us push harder and harder. We still have to put in the work, day by day, week by week, and take it one game at a time.”
Culp said the team's objective is clear.
“We don't want a repeat of last year. We want to get back to the top, and we need to be working our hardest to get there,” he said. “We know our goal, and we know we have to work hard every single day to get there. We have good coaches who keep us disciplined. We all know what it takes to achieve our goal, and now just need to do it.”