Top games: Semifinal selections feature two unbeatens in Division 1, Eisenhower and Cass Tech
Shelby Township – The character and traits that have made Utica Eisenhower coach Chris Smith proud of his team this season can be used to describe his opponent on Saturday.
And that’s what concerns Smith the most.
Eisenhower (12-0), ranked No. 3, will play top-ranked Detroit Cass Tech (12-0) in a Division 1 semifinal at Troy Athens at 1 p.m.
Eisenhower hasn’t played in a state final since Bob Lantzy coached the Eagles to the final in 2003. Cass Tech has won two state titles this decade and lost in last season’s final.
Eisenhower is a well-balanced team that prefers to run the ball on offense and use its quickness to make plays on defense.
Cass Tech does have a number of game-breakers on the perimeter but it, too, likes to run the ball with Rodney Hall at quarterback and Donovan Johnson at running back. Because of its offensive capabilities Cass Tech is sometimes underappreciated defensively. But with possibly the state’s best secondary the Technicians have the ability to make teams one dimensional.
Eisenhower runs the triple option offense with junior quarterback Matt Wittwer in charge of making the correct reads. Slot back Jack Provencher has the speed to break the big play and he set the school single-season rushing record (1,475 yards) to lead an offense that has set school records for yards gained per game and rushing yards per game.
“We use the triple option out of the (shot)gun, not the pistol,” Smith said. “It gives us more of an opportunity to throw the ball. If you have the quarterback, it’s tough to stop. Cass Tech is running a little of it now. On film we’ve see them use it the last three weeks. (Hall) is the most dangerous guy on the team. It’s hard to concentrate on one guy for them. (Hall) does like to run it.”
The one obvious difference between these two teams is the number of future Division I players that are found on Cass Tech’s roster. Players like receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, one of the country’s best, and the versatile Jaylen Kelly-Powell, who recently committed to Michigan, give a decided edge to the team that will wear green and white on Saturday.
Smith is quick to point out that most observers are missing an important part of Cass Tech’s success.
“Watching film,” Smith said. “What is overlooked is the coaching. They’re one of the top-coaches teams we’ll face. That gets overlooked.”
Eisenhower’s coaching staff isn’t too shabby, either. Brad Morris came over from Macomb Dakota as its offensive coordinator and is now the running backs coach who assists former Eisenhower great John DiGiorgio, the offensive coordinator, in calling the plays.
What is also overlooked is the play of the Eisenhower offensive line. Smith had to replace all five starters from a year ago and much of this credit goes to offensive line coach Chris Layson, who was a lineman at Eisenhower. Pick: Cass Tech by 6.
All games are Saturday at 1 p.m.
Detroit Catholic Central (12-0) vs. Romeo (9-3) at Howell: These teams played in a region final last season and were tied after three quarters before Romeo took over. That C.C. team was a year away from being one of the state’s elite teams. Last season was by far Romeo’s best. Like last year, one team will wear down as the game enters the fourth quarter. This time it won’t be the No. 2-ranked Shamrocks. Pick: C.C. by 8.
Birmingham Groves (11-1) vs. Detroit King (10-2) at Dearborn: Look at State Champs’ preseason top 25. King was ranked No. 19; Groves 25. What this should tell you is that the coaching staffs from both schools have done as well as any this season. Tyrone Spencer took over a difficult situation at King and Brendan Flaherty had the most adventurous schedule in school history. Look for the defense to dominate and for Ambry Thomas of King to make one or two big plays to decide the outcome. Pick: King by 8.
Lowell (12-0) vs. Walled Lake Western (11-1) at Brighton: Here we go again. These teams played a wild one in the snow in last season’s semifinal (Lowell won, 49-34) and also played a wild one in the 2015 opener (won by Western, 42-40). It’s difficult to explain but Lowell and its players are made for games like this. Western is more talented with players like Mr. Football candidate Cody White and fellow receiver Kam Ford but Lowell seems to find a way. Pick: Lowell by 4.
Dearborn Divine Child (10-2) vs. Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (8-4) at West Bloomfield: Divine Child has one of the top junior quarterbacks in Theo Day and he played exceptionally well last week in the Falcons’ 28-21 victory over Allen Park. Divine Child plays a number of underclassmen and could be a year away from being one of the state’s top teams. St. Mary’s will win this game on the line of scrimmage. The Eaglets are too strong and physical in this area. Pick: St. Mary’s by 7.
Edwardsburg (12-0) vs. Muskegon (11-1) at East Kentwood: This is the third semifinal appearance for the Eddies and this could well be their best team. Looking back, it’s too bad Muskegon didn’t compete in Division 2 as it did last season. Things would have been a bit more interesting for the Big Reds. Pick: Muskegon by 20.
Detroit Country Day (12-0) vs. River Rouge (11-1) at Hazel Park: When the pairings were released on Oct. 23 this match-up was the one many pointed to. River Rouge did has a bit of trouble getting past Detroit Mumford (34-22) in a district final. Country Day rolled past its three playoff opponents. Both teams have playmakers at quarterback, Steve Mann for Country Day and Darius Grissom at River Rouge. Country Day played a more competitive schedule during the regular season and that’s where the slim edge lies. Pick: Country Day by 2.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-1) vs. Hudsonville Unity Christian (10-2) at Greenville: Unity Christian has had some strange scores this season. The Crusaders lost to Zeeland East 12-7 and beat Comstock Park 66-31. C.C. has been more consistent. C.C. has given up just seven points in the last four games. Pick: C.C. by 11.
Frankenmuth (11-1) vs. Menominee (11-1) at the Superior Dome in Marquette: The Maroons lost to DeWitt, a Division 3 regional finalist. Frankenmuth lost to Freeland before turning the tables on Freeland in the playoffs. Menominee makes the Upper Peninsula fans proud once again. Pick: Menominee by 9.
Grand Rapids West Catholic (10-2) vs. Algonac (11-1) at Battle Creek Harper Creek: Allendale’s 30-27 victory over West Catholic in the regular season finale is one of the more bizarre scores in the Grand Rapids area. West Catholic had won five straight going into that game including an impressive 20-3 victory over G.R. Catholic Central the previous week. Got to think that woke the Falcons up. Pick: West Catholic by 8.
Jackson Lumen Christi (10-2) vs. Millington (11-1) at Lansing Catholic Central: Millington showed poise last week. After trailing 20-0 the Cardinals came back to defeat Detroit Central Collegiate 22-20. Lumen Christi running back Bo Bell will get his number called quite a bit in this game as the Titans will attempt to control the time of possession. Pick: Lumen Christi by 12.
Leroy Pine River (9-3) vs. Maple City Glen Lake (10-2) at Thirlby Field in Traverse City: Pine River has never made it to a state final. Glen Lake lost in two state championship games (1994, ’96). Pine River quarterback Mason Powell rushed for over 200 yards last week and he’ll test a solid Glen Lake defense. Pick: Pine River by 1.
Detroit Loyola (10-2) vs. Cassopolis (11-1) at Jackson Withington Stadium: Cassopolis defeated a good Berrien Springs team (Division 5) 28-21 during the regular season but other than that game there have been few quality teams on its schedule. Loyola’s schedule was noticeably better and that fact could come into play here. Pick: Loyola by 5.
Ubly (12-0) vs. Pewamo-Westphalia (12-0) at Mount Pleasant: Running back Jared Smith was contained last week but Pewamo-Westphalia found a way to defeat Traverse City St. Francis, 17-14. Ubly is attempting to reach its second state final. Should the Pirates win it would be their third final appearance in the last six seasons. Pick: Pewamo-Westphalia by 10.
Muskegon Catholic Central (12-0) vs St. Ignace LaSalle (11-1) at Petoskey: It’s doubtful any team in this division can stay with C.C. Maybe the winner of the other semifinal but not St. Ignace. Pick: C.C. by 19.
Ottawa Lake Whiteford (12-0) vs. Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (10-2) at Dearborn Edsel Ford: Whiteford likes to run the ball with Jesse Kiefer as the featured back. Lutheran Seminary has given up a few points this season and might have trouble containing Kiefer and company. Pick: Whiteford by 7.
Last week’s record: 25-7.
Season record: 99-43.