There’s no denying it: De La Salle repeats as state football champions

The 2018 Division 2 state football champion De La Salle Pilots pose for a team photo following their 29-16 victory over Muskegon Mona Shores at Ford Field on Nov. 23. (Photos courtesy of Kevin Fitzhenry)

There was no way in h-e-goal posts that Warren De La Salle was going to leave Ford Field last Friday afternoon without the 2018 MHSAA Division 2 football trophy in their possession to place next to the one they won last year.

After a lackluster first half that ended 7-7, the Pilots took charge from the start of the second half to send a message to their worthy opponents, Mona Shores from Muskegon, that this game, this championship, belonged to them.

It took only one minute and 57 seconds for De La Salle to state its case.

Josh DeBerry returned the kickoff 19 yards to the Pilots 30-yard line. They covered the remaining 70 yards in five plays, highlighted by quarterback Nolan Schultz’s 19-yard toss to DeBerry and then a 44-yard touchdown bomb to Jacob Dobbs to make it a 14-7 advantage they wouldn’t relinquish en route to a 29-16 victory.

From a variety of viewpoints, here’s some of what I saw and heard:

Before the game – “This is a very exciting time for the whole family,” said Dwayne Zepp. His son, Adam, is the starting right guard for the Pilots, as he was in last year’s championship team. A junior, he’ll be back next fall for a Pilots three-peat opportunity.

He’s also among the unheralded players every squad must have for a winning formula. At 6-foot-1 and 255 pounds, Adam and his mates in the center of the line were key to giving Schultz the opening he needed for three 1-yard head-down touchdown plunges. 

Away from football, Adam is a 4.4 student “and has a high IQ,” his father said. “He’s a good Christian man. We go to church every Sunday.”

Ken Gabriel, who graduated from De La Salle in 1958, remembers “when we were located near City Airport. I’ve been cheering for them for 64 years.”

He went on: “I remember 1956 when we beat Denby for the city championship. We were behind 20-0 at the half. We tied at 20-20. I remember the last play. We were on the eight-yard line. Bill Henigan was the quarterback. He faked left, then he faked right. Everybody was on the ground. He ran for a touchdown and we won 26-20.”

Tim Rogers is senior Josh DeBerry’s brother and “his biggest fan.” DeBerry has All State credentials on both sides of the scrimmage line: 12 rushing touchdowns and 9 passing TDs, an average 25 yards on kickoff returns and four interceptions.

He’s made several campus visits and a few more are planned. According to Tim, “Right now he likes Cincinnati, Iowa and Northwestern.”

First half in the press box  From Level 7 near the rafters of Ford Field, I learned I need to see my eye doctor. Thank goodness for TV monitors.

Fans on both sides of the field (and kudos to both schools for the large turnouts) couldn’t believe or understand what they were seeing, too: a cautious, afraid-to-make-a-mistake brand of football from a pair of explosive offenses.

The Sailors’ coach, Matt Koziak, showed a bit of derring-do. Twice, on fourth down-and-one situations – once from his own 38, the other on De La Salle's 40 – he decided to go for a first down, only to be turned away by linebacker Dobbs, two of his timely game-high 16 tackles.

Mona Shores got the ball back after the first stop by intercepting a Schultz pass, but wasn’t so fortunate after the second stop.

Schultz connected with DeBerry racing down the right sideline on a 50-yard pass play to set up the first of Schultz's three one-yard touchdowns for a 7-0 lead.

Then followed a gridiron version of “hot potato.” The Pilots punted three times; the Sailors punted right back three times.

Schultz ended the monotony by fumbling away the ball at the Pilots' 42. Mona Shores expressed gratitude for this break by scoring with just 35 seconds left in the half to tie the score at 7-7.

During the halftime – I came down to ground zero and embarked on a very unscientific poll of  De La Salle “coaches in the stands” for their thoughts on what they had witnessed. It was pretty predictable.

“Our punter will keep us in the game.” (Neither team punted in the second half).

“We haven’t faced a team this strong.” 

“The passing is horrible.” 

“Only the defense has showed up.” 


“It’ll all come down to which coach gets his team fired up.” 

“The Pilots are in a hole ... way too conservative.”

Second half behind the DLS section – One fan said, “Not to worry. We’re a second-half team.”

He was right. Both teams underwent attitude-adjustments and produced 24 minutes of up-and-down the field excitement.

After the Pilots took the 14-7 lead, Mona Shores responded with a 13-play, 55-yard drive to De La Salle’s seven-yard line, where the Pilots defense – keyed by linebacker Devin Campbell (10 game tackles) and Dobbs forced the Sailors to be satisfied with a 24-yard field goal to make it 14-10.

The Pilots answered with an 82-yard drive to boost their lead to 21-10, sparked by Schultz’s three completions totaling 55 yards and a key run for 13 yards on a 2nd-down-and-12 to keep the drive alive.

The Sailors came right back, traveling 63 yards in just three minutes to put themselves back in contention, 21-16.

The tension was palpable. The Pilots were not be denied.

DeBerry returned the ensuing kickoff 29 yards to the Pilots' 35-yard line. Schultz and halfback Evan Vaillancourt combined for 51 yards on 11 runs and Schultz inserted a 14-yard pass to chew up five precious minutes for the championship-clinching six points and a two point conversion.

On my way to the post-game interviews, someone shouted, “Hey, I was right! I told you at halftime we had to connect on our passes.”

In view of the happy ending, I guess we can say all the second-guessers were right.

At the post-game interview, Pilots coach Mike Giannone talks about De La Salle’s  second straight Division 2 state championship with  Josh DeBerry (left), Nolan Schultz and Jacob Dobbs.

In the post-game interview room – Coach Mike Giannone repeated what he’s said often during the season: “It’s unbelievable. Our defense was tested. Our offense did what it had to do.

“I have to credit (athletic director) Mike Watson for a tough schedule, including Muskegon (in the season opener, which De La Salle lost) and Davison. We played some good teams: Catholic Central and Brother Rice (in the Catholic League) and Oak Park (odds-on favorite to win Division 2 in the state playoff). The team came together. It means so much when you’re growing up together and playing with your friends. That’s just plain fun.”

Senior linebacker Jacob Dobbs said, “Every high school kid wants to be on top, to leave a legacy. It’s great when coaches trust you and put you in the right place. They prepared us physically and mentally.”

DeBerry, the offensive and defensive stalwart, said, “It’s everything you want, to be with your brothers. We are lucky and blessed that we came back for a second time.”

Junior Nolan Schultz, who took over the quarterback slot in the fifth game of the season for the injured senior starter, Anthony Stepnitz, said, “It’s surreal. We weren’t expected to win.” Reminded that he has three state champ rings: “I was pulled up while I was a freshman and was a part of the (2016) baseball champs. It’s a cool thing.”

Quote of the day from Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak: Referring to the scrum that occurred toward the end of the game, he said: “I told the kids that there’s times in your life when things don’t go your way, especially in sports. You can’t fight everything. You’ll be tested throughout life. This is a great learning tool, something to learn from.”

Contact Don Horkey at [email protected].