Sunday, June 15, 2008

Finally, Something To Talk About

The Michigan High School Athletic Association's scholastic season of 2007-08 ended this past Saturday as four baseball champions were crowned at the same complex the MHSAA hosted their softball championship.

Birmingham Brother Rice became the second-straight Oakland County champion in Division I when the Warriors pounded out a 8-0 win over Saline's Hornets. In Division II, Dearborn Divine Child took home the championship by mercying the Oilers of Mt. Pleasant High, 14-3. In Division IV, Lutheran Westland came within a run of making it three championship metro teams in four divisions when they dropped a 2-1 decision to Bay City All-Saints High. Only Division III had a public school champion as Grass Lake mercied Allendale 14-4.

Notice a trend here? Three championships in four divisions won by private schools. Of course, this hot-button topic is not a new thread but rather a never-ending debate about the advantages private schools and public schools have over one another. Private schools recruit! Public schools are state-supported machines! This is unfair! We need weighted or separate championships!

Blah, blah, blah.

Private schools do recruit -- I've watched it first hand, and I'm tired of the dirty lil' secret being glossed over by the wink 'n' nod crowd who say, with stone-faced resolution, that recruiting doesn't take place. It does. And before we go further, what exactly is 'School of Choice' and 'Open Enrollment? I seem to remember this crafty program keeping two public high schools open in Royal Oak for almost 10 years. Nothing was accomplished by simply putting a your shingle out there and saying, "We're open for business!" It takes some sweat equity to make something like a private high school become a viable option versus the local, public school. Now that the state money well is dry, the public schools will be catching up quickly in the recruitment game that never goes on (wink, wink).

What's comical is how fans like to pick 'n choose their battles in this debate. Brother Rice recruits and it's an outrage, but the small christian and lutheran schools, like Lutheran Westland, are almost never mentioned in these debates. Today, those other Warriors are the feel-good story locally, like Southfield Christian was a few years ago, or Rochester Lutheran Northwest was a handful of years ago, because they don't win year after year.

Translation? Those schools aren't annual contenders for the biggest prize like Brother Rice is, so there's no threat about Westland Lutheran's Warriors. Here's more evidence: Do you notice how no one was upset the U-D Jesuit lost to Berkley 1-0 at Berkley's regional, or that Royal Oak's Ravens defeated Warren De LaSalle? Not one Catholic League fan complained about the advantages those two schools have over their private school. And when Macomb Dakota defeated Royal Oak, where was the furor there? Oh, it was two big, state-funded public schools, so I guess all is right with the world in that regional.

When Bob Riker's team defeated Jenison High on Friday in the Division I semifinals, Brother Rice became the first Oakland County school to reach five finals in either Class A or Division I, eclipsing Frank Clouser's Royal Oak Kimball teams that went to four finals in 10 years from 1971-1980. What's ironic is when Kimball went to those four finals, it was because Kimball was that good, right? It wasn't about Kimball having 3,600 students and the state's tax-stipend per student to fund those efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kimball remains the only school to go to three consecutive Class A or Division I championship games, so where was the uproar over that state-sanctioned machine our tax dollars created?

Maybe it was because Frank Clouser was a good coach. So is Bob Riker, as is Tony DeMare at Divine Child.

When Rice reaches the finals in the present day with 1,408 students, or Divine Child with 891 students, it's because Rice and Divine Child recruit, or because they had an easy road, or all the other reasons except why they really got there. It's really because they have a very good coach. Their players are talented. They dominate their opponents the old-fashioned way, by not making defensive mistakes, by manufacturing runs with precise execution and by out-pitching their competition.

Brother Rice didn't have an easy road to the finals; they made beating some tough competition look easy. They mercied Birmingham Groves 10-0 in a five-inning, no-hit mercy, the same Falcons who came within a game of winning their OAA division. Jim Crosby has won about 600 games at Groves, where's the uproar about that? Rice then made Plymouth Canton and White Lake Lakeland (remember when the Eagles were known as Milford Lakeland?) look helpless by 12-1 and 13-1 counts to earn the regional crown. What's omitted in this discussion is that Canton beat Novi, who had previously topped No. 1 ranked Northville, so either the rankings mean nothing or sour grapes mean everything when the big, bad private school wins. It's either that or Ferris Bueller's cousin's girlfriend who's brother sits in chemistry class really did get him sick at Baskin Robbins while sampling one of the famous 31 flavors.

Bueller.... Bueller?

Brother Rice and Divine Child are the bullies in the local Detroit prep baseball scene but when football season is upon us, DC takes a back seat while Rice remains a schoolyard bully. Who do they all answer to? Farmington Hills Harrison. I've lived in Farmington Hills for 18 months now and I've watched countless cars come through the neighborhood, stop and ask me or a fellow neighbor, "If we buy this house, do our kids go to Harrison High School?" That isn't Harrison recruiting -- that's parents finding a way into the district to make sure their kid is at Harrison. And today, finding a house on the cheap is easy in every Michigan community.

In Farmington and Farmington Hills, Harrison is known as the sports school when compared to North Farmington and Farmington High. What's funny is Harrison isn't dominant in any other girls' or boys' sport - not even close - the way they are in football. And the huge, public school argument? It doesn't exist, because coach John Herrington's Hawks, who have reached 16 finals and earned 12 titles, have played the big, bad public schools with enrollments between 900-1000, picking between 400-500 boys, while thumping schools with enrollments between 2000-3000 students.

All of these other tired, ancillary arguments conveniently omit the obvious fact many fans don't want to admit: A good coach with good athletes has a better chance of winning the title than a school without a good coach and good athletes. That might explain why they usually do win the state title.

There's a concept, huh?

~T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, now available online at Border's Books and Barnes & Noble and available in stores August 25th, 2008.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Before Brad Coachran Changed The MHSAA, He Changed Sports

If I said Brad Cochran fundamentally changed the Michigan High School Athletic Association and switched sports 30 years before the MHSAA was forced to do so under the weight of a federal judgment, you might expect a more detailed story.

Let me explain. And no, Cochran doesn't live in Grand Rapids.

I spent last Saturday at West Bloomfield High School, watching Birmingham Brother Rice advance to the Division I regional this weekend at Birmingham Seaholm. During the final I spent some time talking with longtime Birmingham Groves baseball coach and teacher Jim Crosby along the left field foul line. We talked about the many years Crosby and longtime assistant Phil Roy have coached at Groves. Later, as we recalled the MHSAA's transfer rules were born when Cochran's parents enrolled their son at Rice for the 1980 season, Crosby's eyes lit up.

"Did you know Brad Cochran was a cross country runner at Royal Oak Dondero when he was a freshman?" Crosby asked with equal part smirk and smile. I was already surprised when Crosby told me he had been a cross country coach at Groves, but a high school freshman running five miles races and starting at defensive back in the Big Ten a handful of years later? Brad Cochran was All-Big Ten at the University of Michigan, earned All-American honors and was the 3rd round pick in the 1986 National Football League draft of the Oakland Raiders.

Are you kidding me?

When you think of names from the running circuit of south Oakland County, you think of guys like Birmingham's Kermit Ambrose. Hazel Park's Jack Broughton and Dan Lutkus come to mind quickly, and Dick Zulch, too. Trust me, I was shocked, and I like to think I know a little prep football history. Most kids who run cross country have as much chance of becoming Big Ten football heroes as the kid playing tuba in the marching band has at becoming the next Tom Brady or Broadway Joe Namath.

I ought to know -- I was a skinny track guy in high school.

"It's true. I remember the races we saw him at," Crosby said of his time coaching the harriers. "Brad Cochran was a tall, lanky kid who hadn't filled out. He was about 6'2" without any meat on him. Of course, the next year we saw him on the football field and he had turned into a man among boys. He was filled out and was a natural for football."

The MHSAA's transfer rules were, for many years, nicknamed The Brad Cochran Rule among the media covering prep sports statewide because of Cochran's sudden transfer. It wasn't the first time a Royal Oak kid had spurned the public school. When I cornered John Wangler at last season's Michigan-Michigan State football game media event, I boldly told John, "If you had gone to Kimball instead of Shrine, Paul Temerian would have won three state titles!" Wangler laughed and diplomatically offered, "I would have loved to play for Coach Temerian!"

We then both laughed because Wangler would have thrown the ball about four times a game if he had gone to Kimball, where running the football was the alpha and omega of the playbook. Wangler would have been the greatest prep quarterback to ever hand a football off a million times consecutively - that would have been a shame.

Brad Cochran was different. He could return punts and kicks. He covered opponents like a glove, and was big, fast and strong. Playing under head coach Ivy Loftin, the '78 Dondero team finished a game behind league champion Birmingham Groves at 4-1 in the Metro Suburban Activities Association (MSAA) and 6-3 overall, but the season ended bitterly with a 14-0 setback to Southeastern Michigan Association (SMA) champion Kimball. In '79, with Cochran as a junior captain, Dondero marched to the MSAA title, going 5-0 in league after opening the season with wins over Ferndale and Hazel Park. At 7-0, Dondero was ranked as high as No. 2 in the state and primed to earn their first playoff invite. But the Oaks stumbled in a 14-12 loss at Cass Field to their former Thanksgiving Day rivals, Birmingham Seaholm.

The next week, playing 4-4 Kimball, Cochran hauled in a 23-yard touchdown pass for Dondero's first score on the game's opening possession. That would be Dondero's lone highlight - Kimball trounced the Oaks by three scores, 27-6, in front of an upset-minded rival crowd. This loss specifically drove Cochran's parents to seek out a different option for their son. They were upset that no scouting and no film prep had been put into The Oak Stump game, a game that, if won, could have salvaged the season and possibly still earned Dondero a playoff berth.

The next year Cochran was proudly wearing the orange and black of Brother Rice. With no transfer rules to stop him, Brad Cochran joined future Big Ten players Paul Jokisch and Dave Yarema in taking Rice to a 12-0 slate and the season's Class A title. The Warriors outscored their opponents 345-74. They topped Sterling Heights Stevenson in the quarters 25-13, and defeated Detroit Central's Trailblazers 49-12 in the semifinal. In the Pontiac Silverdome, Yarema found Yokisch for a touchdown late in the 4th quarter to give Rice a 6-0 win over Dearborn Fordson, completing an undefeated, championship season.

In the months to follow the transfer rules were drafted and later enacted. In every MHSAA membership bulletin since, those affiliated with the state's prep association can read the minutes and details of the many requests to waive the transfer regulations, month after month, and often with little success.

Today, Cochran doesn't hate Dondero. He doesn't hate Kimball, either, where his brother, Brett, played football for both George Hanoian and recently-retired Terry Powers. Cochran still gets his hair cut at the Kimball Barber Shop, where Tiger broadcaster Paul Carey visited regularly for nearly 20 years when he lived in Royal Oak.

Thirty years ago, an All-State football player was a cross country runner at a different school. The one-time runner, turned footballer and head-turning transfer, became a state champion, All-American and NFL draft pick. He broke hearts, leaving one big school for another, and changed the high school landscape we live in today.

That was Brad Cochran.

(Photo courtesy of The Oakland Press)

~T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, due August 25th, 2008 from Arcadia Publishing

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

There's Never A Dull Moment At The Yard

To the casual fan, yesterday's MHSAA district baseball results from West Bloomfield High School were nothing out of the ordinary. Birmingham Brother Rice marched to yet another district title, dismissing Birmingham Groves 10-0 before a mercy of Southfield Lathrup, 18-3 to advance to next week's regional at Birmingham Seaholm.

Sandwiched between the seemingly one-sided day was a dominant no-hitter and a stunning upset that sent Lathrup to a district final of consequence for the first time in several years. Rice hurler Matt Conway was just one of many thorns in the side of Groves and Lathrup scored a victory over Birmingham Seaholm that would have been as difficult to predict as it was to describe as it happened.

In commenting on his no-no, Conway was equal parts prideful and practical. "It feels great, that's for sure, but it feels great to finally step up and contribute, because this hasn't been my best year," explained the Rice junior. "Focus has been something I've had to correct. We knew Groves had a great team and they had a good pitcher going today so we really prepared for them. I really had my fastball working today. I'm just glad I did my part."

Brother Rice was methodical and mechanical in their surgical dissection of Groves. The Warriors nickeled and dimed the Falcons all game long, taking base after extra base and forcing Groves to make one perfect throw after another. The Falcons did complete an inning-ending double play that saw Jamey Sackett tag out a Warrior at the plate, but that was to be the only highlight for Groves. At day's end, all that spare change turned into $10 worth of runs on the scoreboard, resulting in an unceremonious end to a Groves season that was just one win short of sharing an OAA regular season title.

Taking it all in was a Birmingham icon, basketball coach Bill Norton. After coaching Rice for over 15 years in the 1970s and 80s, Norton left for Michigan State University. He returned to Rice for a cameo stint of five years before moving off Lahser Road for a nine-year run on 13 Mile Road at Groves. "Today I find myself talking about Groves but saying the word Rice and vice-versa, because I have a history at both schools," Norton said with a laugh.

"You know, baseball is the one game where all your players have to be clicking or this type of game can happen," Norton observed. "We (Groves) had a good team this year but we ran into a pitcher like Conway and Rice made no mistakes. They kept the pressure on us all day to make good plays and this is what happened.

Norton continued that his basketballers suffered a similar fate in this past season's district game with Orchard Lake St. Mary's that the baseball Falcons suffered with Rice yesterday.

"We were down 40-30 during about 10 consecutive possessions for each team in that game, and we got the looks and the shots for the players we wanted, but the triples that fell in the district opener with Walled Lake Northern didn't go down," Norton recalled. "By the time Orchard Lake started to respond with a run, our chance was gone. Our guys really wanted it but we weren't ready to pull off that upset.

"The other thing is, if you have two evenly-matched teams, you usually don't get a 80-40 game in basketball," Norton said. "You get three really good players, you can have an outstanding season. Boston won 24 games last year. They added three studs. They're in the finals this year. In baseball, just a pitching matchup alone could create a situation you can't recover from. Add a few mistakes and even though you have two good teams like Groves and Rice, you get a mercy."

The game of the day was the second semifinal. 20 years ago Seaholm's 'Maple Miracles' won the Class A state championship, but Seaholm was on the other end of glory yesterday. While it wouldn't have surprised anyone to watch Lathrup advance to a district final 20 years ago, today Lathrup is rebuilding under coach Darren Mosley and the Chargers haven't had a significant district win in recent memory...until yesterday. After surviving a first frame scare, Lathrup took a commanding 5-1 lead only to see the Maples take a 7-5 lead with three innings to play. Deadlocked at 10 in their final at-bat, Lathrup pushed across the needed run to hand Mosley the win his program has looked for to cement the idea that baseball can again be a winner at the tony Southfield high school.

"There were so many games this year that we should of won, but we'd squander the game away defensively," Mosley explained. "North Farmington is a game that comes to mind immediately, the classic example of our guys having no trouble putting the bat on the ball or throwing strikes, but we kicked the ball all over the place and lost a game we should have won.

"That's what makes today's win in an elimination game important," Mosley beamed, even after Rice disposed of his Chargers in the final by scoring 14 runs before an out had been recorded in the first inning. "A lot of black kids just don't play baseball, and when they play with no success, it makes them want to quit even more, so this win is important. We now have a win to point to and say, 'If you give us the preparation and attention to fundamentals, we could put this program back on the map in a hurry'.

Lathrup has had more than a handful of successful teams in football, basketball and track and field in the same manner their baseball team used to win on an annual basis, and Mosley is convinced it can be done again.

"We have good athletes in our school, and if our guys are willing to build on this, we can turn them into a skilled team that could win a lot of baseball games."

~T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, due August 25th, 2008 from Arcadia Publishing

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