Touchdown Traverse: A Brief History Of Local High School Football Glory

The last time Traverse City Central played for a national soccer championship, Ronald Reagan was president, Russia was still the Soviet Union, and Central was still called Traverse City High School. In this game, which was played on November 26, 1988 against Detroit Catholic Central, the Trojans prevailed 24:14 in the now destroyed Pontiac Silverdome.

This afternoon (Friday) Traverse City Central will try to end the 33-year drought for the state title.

Starting with a 1pm whistle at Detroit’s Ford Field, the Trojans will battle Warren De La Salle for a Division 2 Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) championship. It is the newest chapter in a decade-long history of fame and disappointment for Traverse City high school football teams.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Traverse City High was a true soccer powerhouse. The Trojans’ first trip to the state finals corresponded to their first year of state finals: 1975, when the MHSAA first began playing real high school football playoff tournaments. Traverse City lost that game to Livonia Franklin 21-7, but was back in the championship game just three years later, defeating North Farmington 20:14.

Jim Ooley, who coached the 1978 team, remains the only one who led the Trojans to a state title. He did it twice more, in 1985 and 1988. Ooley began teaching at Traverse City High in 1953, became head coach in 1967, and retired after the 1991 season with a career record of 179-60-4. He died in November 2005 at the age of 77.

Traverse City High School never returned to the state finals after Ooley’s tenure. In 1997, the Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) split schools due to overcrowding. TC High becomes Central High School, and West Senior High opens all over town. West’s Titans have never competed in a state championship game – nor did the Trojans do so under the Central name. According to John Sonneman, a former TC Central sporting director and Trojan sporting event announcer since 1966, the split meant West had to build a football program from the ground up; Central meanwhile had to start over.

“In the year the school split, we had 36 postmen who returned,” Sonneman tells the ticker. “35 of them went west. We had a returning postman at Central. “

The Trojans went 0-9 that 1997 season and 3-6 for each of the next five years. Finally, in 2003, Central reached the playoffs, marking the school’s first postseason since Ooley’s departure. West, meanwhile, went straight out of the gate 7-2 – and had winning seasons every year until 2009 – but didn’t make it into the playoffs until 2002.

The two schools have come closest to a state title since the separation? A year ago, when Central lost in the semifinals with 43:30 against Mona Shores – despite the lead until half-time. Mona Shores won the D2 championship.

West – with higher enrollments that usually end up in Division 1 for football – had its best season in 2004. That year the Titans went into the playoffs with an unbeaten 9-0 record, winning their quarter-final against East Kentwood and then lost in the district finals against the eventual D1 national champion Rockford. All in all, West ended the 2004 season with the best record ever: 10-1.

Central’s current season is the strongest series of football that both of their Crosstown rivals have had since the Ooley years. The team’s record is currently 12-1, the best since TC High reached 13-0 in 1988. The Trojans have scored more points this season (635) than any previous year in the history of the two schools. And the Central team even made their playoff wins look easy, winning all four games by at least four touchdowns ahead.

Now one last question: can the Trojans overturn the best-seeded, undefeated Warren De La Salle – a school that has won three D2 championships in the past decade – for the title? Sonneman, who has been in the stands at each of Traverse City High School’s four previous state finals, will travel to Ford Field to see for himself.

“Oh, I’ll be there,” he says. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

Today may be the first TCAPS appearance at a national soccer championship since 1988, but Traverse City St. Francis has worked to keep the legacy of the area’s “soccer powerhouse” alive in the meantime. The Gladiators have made six trips to the Division 7 State Finals in the past 20 years, winning the title on five of those occasions – 1999, 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2009. They almost added one more trophy last year. finished runner-up after a 42-35 State Finals loss to New Lathrop. And they were almost back in the race this year, before the 28:21 semi-final defeat against Pewamo-Westphalia last weekend.

Before the state changed its soccer divisions in 1999, St. Francis also competed in three Class C championships – won a title in 1992, and finished runner-up in 1989 and 1998, respectively. In 1975, St. Francis Sporting Director Aaron Biggar said the school already had two unofficial titles had, from 1973 and 1974. In those years before the playoffs, Detroit newspapers selected top teams based on win-loss records.

When asked about particularly memorable title runs, Biggar points out four:

In 1992, the Glads won the title in a 28-21 double overtime game against Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher. As Biggar recalls, it was a pass from quarterback Scott Doriot (now St. Francis’ offensive coordinator) to tight end Greg Springer (who later played for Central Michigan University) to win the game.

In 2005, St. Francis punched her ticket to the state final with a last minute run to beat Muskegon Catholic 19-13 in the D7 semifinals. A week later, the Gladiators overthrew an undefeated Unionville-Sebewaing team 28:14 to win the championship.

Biggar’s other two favorite titles came in a row in 2008 and 2009 as the Gladiators scored massive wins in championship games: 41-13 over Ubly in 2008 and 42-8 over Hudson the following year. In 2009, the Glads scored 682 points on the scoreboard in their 14-game unbeaten season – one of the 10 highest-scoring seasons in Michigan high school football history. For Biggar, the meeting of world-class talent on these two teams was like lightning in a bottle.

“Three of the players on those teams made it into the NFL,” says Biggar. “That was Max and Riley Bullough and Joe Kerridge. All three made the NFL lists, and two of those guys were captains of Big Ten teams. You got that from this little department 7 school. It’s an amazing thing that will probably never happen again. “

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