Ithaca makes trip to Ford Field a holiday tradition; Yellowjackets are in the Division 6 final for sixth straight season
Ithaca – Winning and playing for state championships have become a holiday tradition for coach Terry Hessbrook and his Ithaca program. The Yellowjackets won 69 consecutive games claiming four consecutive Division 6 titles before those streaks ended last season when Ithaca lost to Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central, 22-12.
Hessbrook and Co. are riding a 13-game winning streak and the Yellowjackets will make their sixth consecutive state-final appearance on Friday when it faces Clinton (13-0) at Ford Field at 4:30 p.m.
Ithaca defeated Clinton, 41-22, in the 2013 title game.
Ithaca trailed Traverse City St. Francis 13-12 at halftime in Saturday’s semifinal at Clare High before coming back to win, 28-19.
The loss to St. Mary C.C. stuck with Hessbrook for months. The program was three victories away from tying the state record of 72 consecutive victories held by Hudson.
“It took me longer then the kids to get over it,” he said. “The kids were ready to prepare for this season the next week. They posted the stories about us and the game on the walls. I didn’t read them until March. And they were good stories. You guys wrote good things about us.
“It was time to move on. I looked at it like, we might not get back (to the final) again. I was concerned. We had so many kids coming back we knew we’d be good. You just never know.”
A fumble, a missed extra point, an injury or two have kept some of the most deserving teams from reaching the finals.
When Spence Demull, Ithaca’s top receiver from last season with 66 receptions, suffered a lower body injury in the offseason it looked like Hessbrook’s team might struggle. But Demull returned for the regular season finale and the Yellowjackets are hitting their stride. Demull has 30 receptions in the last three weeks and quarterback Jake Smith is making big play after big play.
“They seem more focused as the season has gone on,” Hessbrook said. “Without our top receiver we had to figure out how to run the ball more. Maybe it helped us.”
Smith and Demull teamed for a 5-yard touchdown pass with four seconds left in the first half against St. Francis to give the Yellowjackets momentum.
“We gave them seven points on the opening kickoff,” Hessbrook said. “We missed two extra points. At halftime I told the kids if we clean up our special teams’ play we’ll be all right. We felt pretty good about how we were playing.”
Ithaca forged a 21-19 lead and Hessbrook turned to a reporter on the sideline midway through the fourth quarter and said it was time for his defense to take over. On the next play Curtis Ackels had a sack and forced a fumble that Ithaca recovered. Smith rushed for his second touchdown of the game to put the game away.
Smith rushed for 148 yards and was 14-of-26 passing and threw two touchdown passes. The 26 attempts is a season-high despite the cold and snowy conditions.
“It was a battle,” Hessbrook said. “(St. Francis) is a championship program. They’ve won six state titles.
“You have to make plays to make it back (to Ford Field) and the kids have made those plays all season.”
Ithaca is a tight-knit community located just south of Mount Pleasant and those in community look to the high school football program with a deep sense of pride and excitement.
Hessbrook graduated from Ithaca in 1985 and played for its longtime coach Jim Ahern (1972-‘03), and coached under him for nine seasons before taking over the program in 2004. Ahern just completed his seventh season as head coach at Lansing Catholic Central and Hessbrook said he talks with his mentor at least once a week.
Ithaca used to run the single wing but switched to the spread offense in the late 90s.
“It was a big change,” Hessbrook said. “We went from a power run offense with misdirection to spreading everything out. I told Jim, I theca can’t run the spread. But it was the way to go.”
Hessbrook still uses the spread as does Ahern.