By Mike Mattson
Local Sports Journal
NORTON SHORES – Michigan high school football players dream about competing in a state championship game at Detroit’s Ford Field.
The upstart Mona Shores Sailors are only one game away from that dream.
“I told our kids, ‘Obviously to go to Ford Field is great, but if you overlook this one you’re not going,’” Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak said about Saturday’s Division 2 semifinal matchup at Howell High School at 1 p.m. against perennial power Farmington Hills Harrison.
“So we have to get this one. That’s what we are focusing on, Farmington. If we are fortunate to go, it’s an incredible feeling and experience, but let’s not worry so much about that and overlook who we have to play.”
The fact is that the Sailors (11-1) will play a Harrison team (10-2) with a lot more playoff experience than they have.
Mona Shores enters new territory after winning the first district and regional titles in school history this year.
Harrison, meanwhile, has won a record 13 state championships in the playoff era under legendary Coach John Herrington. He’s the state’s second-winningest coach in history with a 411-96-1 record since 1970 and 13-3 mark in state championship games.
Koziak said the Hawks will be a challenge for his confident team.
“They are extremely athletic,” said Koziak, who has elevated Shores to a new level in his four years at the helm. “They do a lot of stuff very well. They block very well. They tackle very well. They cover very well. This might be the fastest team we’ve played. I know we played Muskegon, but their defense is very, very aggressive.”
Harrison finished 7-2 in the regular season, suffering losses to talented Oak Park (27-0) and Clarkston (31-24), the defending Division I state champion that is still alive in the semifinals. The Hawks also defeated Southfield, which is still alive in Division 2.
In the playoffs, Harrison has defeated Fenton 42-10, Walled Lake Western 10-9 in overtime and Flushing 23-10.
Koziak scouted the Flushing game in person and came away impressed by the Hawks, who used third-string quarterback Anthony Giovanni in his first varsity start. He was replacing standout dual-threat senior quarterback Javon Shaw, who suffered a knee injury in the pre-district game.
Giovanni (5-8) completed 4-of-5 passes for 44 yards and carried eight times for 92 yards and two TDs, including a 43-yard score in the fourth quarter.
“I heard (Shaw) is going to try to play, which is gutsy for the kid because he’s a senior and wants to play,” Koziak said. “But I doubt he’ll be the same kid (as he was) without an ACL.
“(Giovanni) did a great job for them,” Koziak said. “He ran their system. He’s a runner too, obviously not as dynamic as (Shaw). I thought for losing your stud, the kid came in and did an outstanding job considering the circumstances.”
Harrison likes to play traditional smash-mouth football using an I-formation and some double tight-end sets.
“They want to run the football, that’s what they like to do,” Koziak said. “That’s their identity. They throw sometimes and when they want to, but they want to run the football and control the clock.”
Shores has improved all season on defense and should be ready for the Hawks’ challenge. Last week, the Sailors shut out Battle Creek Lakeview 39-0 against an opponent that wanted to employ a physical downhill rushing attack.
Mona Shores counters with a lethal spread offense led by senior dual-threat quarterback Tyree Jackson. He has been effective distributing the ball to fullback DeOntay Moffett, wide receivers Matt Schuiteman and Kobe Burse and slotbacks Darece Roberson and Hunter Broersma.
Koziak said the Hawks play a 5-2 base defense with man-to-man coverage. Senior linebacker Mike Ojemudia (6-1, 190) is a key player on defense for Harrison.
“It’s an aggressive defense, but I think there are some things we can take advantage of,” Koziak said. “We have the quarterback to do that. We have to be able to take advantage of what they are giving us and we’ve done that all year. We’re good at throwing the ball, but obviously in late November you have to be able to run the football, too.”
Koziak said snowy weather has created challenges for practice this week. The Sailors have practiced at an area indoor soccer facility and also plan to practice at Oakridge on artificial turf on Thursday and Friday.
“(We are practicing at Oakridge) just so we are outside in the cold running around,” Koziak said.
Shores has been nearly unbeatable since losing to Rockford (10-7) in Week 3. Koziak hopes the Sailors can continue their impressive play in their biggest game yet on Saturday.
“(Harrison’s) biggest playmaker isn’t there and we have to be able to take advantage of (Shaw) not being in there,” Koziak said. “We have to be able to stop them and give our offense more touches.
“It’s crazy to see where Shores has been and where we’ve come in the short four years,” Koziak added. “It’s a tribute to these kids and their work ethic and a tribute to our coaches and their work ethic.”
Southfield (9-3) will face Warren DeLaSalle (9-3) in the other Division 2 semifinal contest. The two semifinal winners will square off for the state championship at Detroit’s Ford Field on Friday, Nov. 28 at 1 p.m.