Chasing History: The 2018 Brandon Blackhawks Story
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High school sports are not a topic we usually cover at The Athletes Hub. It is normally difficult to introduce high school sports to a global audience; especially when you’re only highlighting one school. However, I felt the need to share this story for a few reasons.
First and foremost, I attend Ortonville-Brandon High School. I was the team manager with the varsity football squad, so I had a bit of an inside look.
The story of the Brandon Blackhawks 2018 season stems from its roots in their 2015 season. The Blackhawks finished the year 6-4 and made the playoffs for the 3rd time since the turn of the century. The team lost to the Linden Eagles in the Pre-District round, 20-3. It was decided that a change was needed, and so began the search for a new head coach. The search led Brandon to Stoney Creek Cougars head coach Brad Zube.
“There were a lot of factors that brought me here. I first looked at Brandon because it was very close to where my family and I live and being close to home with a big family like we have makes life a little easier on everyone.” Coach Zube told The Athletes Hub.
“When I interviewed here and started to meet some of the great people in this community, talked to some of the boys, and toured the facilities I could tell this was a special place. I grew up in a town a lot like Brandon and felt I could really connect with the kids here. This district made a strong commitment to me by providing me with a teaching job and allowing me to work in this district.”
“This is my third head coaching job but it’s the first time I’ve been able to teach and coach in the same building and that is such a difference maker,” said Zube. “I’ve loved all my jobs and all my players at Pontiac and Stoney Creek, but my time here at Brandon has been so special.”
The Blackhawks hired Zube in January 2016 and the changes were almost immediate. Brandon football went 8-1 in the regular season, the only loss came against the powerhouse Fenton Tigers 26-22. The program once again qualified for the state playoffs, but bowed out once again to the Linden Eagles, 34-7.
It was the offseason before the 2017 football season that I moved to the area and met coach Zube. He convinced me to play in the junior varsity ranks that season before moving up to the varsity team for my senior season. I kept a close eye on the varsity team as our respective seasons progressed. The junior varsity team finished 1-7-1, with yours truly recording two tackles and a fumble recovery as a nose tackle.
The varsity team traveled to Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on August 25th, 2017 to open their season against the aforementioned Fenton Tigers. The team lost this game, but still had high hopes for the rest of the season. They finished the regular season 6-3, clinching their third consecutive playoff spot. The Blackhawks faced Auburn Hills Avondale in the Pre-District round. Brandon trailed at halftime, but fought their way back to win on a last-second field goal, 45-44. Linden ended the Blackhawks’ season in the District Final.
From day one, there was something special about this team.
It started with conditioning in June, and continued throughout the summer. I have to point to the 7-vs-7 scrimmages the team held with neighboring high schools on Wednesday nights. The skill players were the only ones required to stay for this, yet the lineman stayed, and the sidelines were lively throughout the night. Every teammate supported each other, no matter what the circumstances were.
Soon enough, it came time for the season to begin. The Blackhawks were entering the season with a new quarterback, as their previous one had graduated. Mathew Harrison, who was with the varsity team as a wide receiver in 2017, transitioned to quarterback for 2018.
“The transition was really easy for me,” Harrison, who was named a team captain, told The Athletes Hub. “Stepping into a leadership role was something I looked forward to and it was something I wanted… The biggest challenge for me was proving everyone wrong that thought I wouldn’t be a good quarterback.”
Harrison lead the Blackhawks to Atwood Stadium in Flint, Michigan for their season opener against the Fenton Tigers. They were there as part of the Vehicle City Gridiron Classic, an annual event that organizers hope becomes a football tradition in the mid-Michigan area. The Blackhawks spotted the Tigers a 14-point lead early, but stormed back. After a touchdown run by senior slot receiver and team captain Mike Nicaj, as well as an incredible sideline touchdown grab by senior wideout Justin Bowman, the Blackhawks trailed 14-12 at half.
The Blackhawks gave up a huge run to begin the second half, but were able to force a fumble on their own 1-yard line to end the drive. A few possessions later, Brandon took the lead for the first time on a 68-yard shovel pass from Harrison to Nicaj. The Blackhawks extended the lead to 26-14, and pulled out a 26-21 victory. This was Fenton’s first Flint Metro League loss in 29 league contests.
“It mean a lot for this program,” Nicaj told The Athletes Hub. “It was a win that set the bar for the season and it was great beating the defending league champions. I was very excited to know the success we were going to have right after that win.”
The Blackhawks had one of their most emotional games the following week against the cross-town rival Goodrich Martians. Both teams wore special jerseys for the event, as it was Brandon’s First Responders night. However, the game had an added impact that only those who lived in the community could adequately convey.
On Thanksgiving morning in 2017, Deputy Eric Overall was killed in the line of duty. “He was everything to the community,” Mathew Harrison said of Deputy Overall. “I was really glad to see the entire community, and really the entire country, come together to honor the First Responders game.”
“I never had much time with Deputy Overall,” said senior linebacker, and another of Brandon’s four team captains, Jake Irwin, “but I experienced one of my close loved ones be greatly impacted by his loss. I realized how he left his mark on all those he knew. So, by observing how much meaning he had to my close loved ones and family, it definitely backed me with another edge during the game, wanting to win for the jerseys and the cause we were repping.”
Irwin got his wish as the Blackhawks pulled out a decisive 26-7 victory in the “Battle of M-15”. After the game, the team lined up on the goal line with the picture of the milk jug that represented the prize for winning the game. It was a great end to an emotional night. Also of note, the two schools raised $6,000 that will go towards a scholarship fund in Deputy Overall’s name.
Photo Credit: Tom Tomich
School started up soon after the victory over Goodrich, meaning games moved over to Friday nights. The first Friday night opponent was the Kearsley Hornets. The team had a bit of difficulty in the first half, but were able to sustain a 22-21 lead. The determination radiated throughout the locker room, and while Kearsley put up a valiant fight, the Blackhawks pulled away for a 42-28 win. The next week, the team had their first true road game as they traveled to Flushing to take on the Raiders.
The Blackhawks had a chance to put the Raiders at 3 losses on the year, and could put themselves in a prime position to lock up a state playoff spot early.
“They are a tough opponent and had quite a size advantage on us.” Zube said of the opponent. The Blackhawks scored on just the 2nd play of the game, but Flushing roared back to take the lead. The Raiders held onto the lead and headed into halftime with a 32-21 lead.
Coming out of the half, the Blackhawks were confident they could get back into the game. Flushing scored on their opening drive, but the Blackhawks answered. On the ensuing Flushing drive, Blackhawks safety Brandon Gunn recovered a fumble to give possession and momentum back to Brandon. Mike Nicaj ran in a jet sweep after the Blackhawks marched down the field, and all the sudden, they were within 5.
With 6:07 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the score was 38-33 in favor of Flushing. The Raiders added to the lead, and went up 59-33. The Blackhawks brought in backup quarterback Micah Miller to receive a few reps, and he threw for a touchdown. The Blackhawks dropped their first game 59-39.
“Flushing made some key personnel changes that night that saved their season and they did not lose again until the playoffs.” Zube told The Athletes Hub. “That being said, it was a game we could’ve won and should’ve won. The offense played well enough to win, but the defense struggled with our reads all night and we didn’t tackle very well. Sometimes you need a game like that to refocus and regroup. I think the boys really took that loss to heart and knew they let one slip away and were determined not to let it happen again.”
The Blackhawks turned their attention to their next game in Owosso against the Trojans. By this time, the Flint Metro League standings were shaping up. It was a real possibility that the road to the league championship ran through Brandon, despite their loss to Flushing. The Fenton Tigers hadn’t suffered a loss since the bout at Atwood Stadium, and the Raiders revived their title hopes. The surprising aspect of this story was the rise of the Swartz Creek Dragons.
They were the only undefeated team in the Metro at the time, and they, much like Brandon, had their first realistic shot at winning the Metro. The Dragons and Blackhawks had a game in hand on October 19th at Brandon High School, the last game of the regular season.
Brandon took part in Owosso’s Salute to Service Night. The game was played at Willman Field. The Blackhawks wore their Overall jerseys once again for this event, and a pregame ceremony paid homage to all members who have served, including the Deputy Overall. The game was chippy, but it wasn’t really close. The highlight of the game came when left tackle Matt Hill, another team captain, ran for a touchdown. The Blackhawks won 53-29.
This game began a stretch of 4 consecutive games of scoring 50+ points for Brandon. The next week was Homecoming, and they beat the Clio Mustangs 56-6 in which Brandon lost the shutout on the final play of the game. After that, the team played the Linden Eagles, a team that had ended their season the last 2 years.
At this point, the Metro was becoming clearer. Swartz Creek had lost to Flint Hamady the week Brandon played Owosso, but that was a non-league loss. Flushing had been on a roll and had one league loss, that being to Swartz Creek. Brandon beat Linden 56-27 and got a small measure of revenge on the Eagles. That loss put Linden at 4 losses, effectively killing their playoff aspirations. The Raiders beat the Tigers to keep their hopes alive. Swartz Creek played a close game against Kearsley, and were able to ward off the Hornet offense.
Brandon’s next opponent was the Holly Bronchos at Holly High School. Holly was holding a Cause game, wearing pink jerseys in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It rained all night, leading Brandon to throw the ball just 8 times. They won 50-14, but it came at a cost.
Senior cornerback Devin Krause was ejected from the game for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during a scuffle. Krause was ineligible for their next game, which ended up being for the league championship.
“I wanted to get as many scout team reps as I could during the week to give our offense and defense good luck, as well as hype my teammates up about all of the aspects of what was on the line for the game.” Krause told The Athletes Hub about his mentality leading up to the game.
The atmosphere around the team had reached a new level. Everything they had worked for was in front of them, and all they had to do was go out and take it.
“Those games were definitely good for us. We were able to get healthy, get everyone some game action, and flex our muscle a little bit. The boys played well during that stretch and put themselves in a position to play for a championship.” Zube said
“We didn’t play as well as we would’ve like during the same stretch in 2017 defensively. I think we lacked some focus at times so I was very proud of the turn around this season during those games. Beating Linden after losing to them twice last season was a big confidence boost for us as well.”
The senior night festivities began and concluded in short order, and the game began. Swartz Creek took the lead on a quarterback keep to the left side, but Brandon tied the game up as Mathew Harrison found Mike Nicaj in the end zone early in the second quarter. The game remained 7-7 at the half.
The Blackhawks received the second half kickoff and began to drive down the field. This drive down the field lead to points, as Nicaj scored again on a jet left sweep. The Dragons answered shortly thereafter, but nose tackle Jordan Elkins and defensive back Brendan McCluskey created enough pressure to force a missed extra point.
The Blackhawks held a 14-13 lead, and added to the lead after Harrison rolled out and launched a bomb to Justin Bowman, who made an amazing grab off a deflection for the score. The Hawks held the lead until 4:55 of the 3rd quarter when Swartz Creek slipped through a pile and ran to the crib. Creek struck again with 2:21 left in the 3rd quarter to take a 27-20 lead.
Swartz Creek held their own into the 4th quarter, but the Blackhawks drove down the field. With 9:25 left in the game, Harrison ran in a quarterback sneak to tie the game at 27. Late in the fourth, the Hawks found a groove, and were able to drive deep into Swartz Creek territory. However, Harrison was stopped short while scrambling on 4th down, turning the ball over.
On the ensuing Creek drive, the Blackhawks pounced on a bad snap at the Dragons 20-yard line. They had the ball with about 1:30 to go. The Hawks ran the ball at the heart of the Creek defense, getting the ball at the 1-yard line with just seconds remaining on the clock. Confidence in sophomore kicker Ian Burke was high, and and an eerily similar situation occurred last year. His brother, Connor, kicked the game-winning field goal against Auburn Hills Avondale in the Pre-District game.
However, the Hawks decided to go for it, and with 7 seconds remaining in the game, Mike Nicaj scored on a jet left sweep. The Dragons got the ball back, but failed to score on two plays. The Brandon Blackhawks were Flint Metro League Champions for the first time since joining the league in 2002.
“I knew, when I got the ball it was going to be a touchdown just because the blocking [tackle] Matt Hill and [guard] Cooper Hickmott gave me,” Nicaj said. “I walked right in the end zone as soon as I turned the corner.”
“Well, we first called the jet left play, and I was like damn. The pressure that this brings for Mikey and the whole left side of the line.” Hill told The Athletes Hub. “As soon as I saw Mikey turn that corner and go into the end zone untouched, this whole feeling of happiness and relief went through my body and I couldn’t help but cry in joy and celebrate with my brother with winning the whole Flint Metro.”
“Jet left had worked all season, so when I heard the play call, I knew it was going to be successful. When I came around the edge of the line and saw only one man there, I knew I had to block him so Mikey could walk in.” Cooper Hickmott explained. “When I made contact, I instantly knew that Mike was gonna score and couldn’t be more thrilled.”
The Blackhawks celebrated after months of blood, sweat, and tears. Years of disappointment and continuous doubt gave the team a swagger unmatched by any. The team had poured their hearts into this season with one goal in mind: A Flint Metro League championship.
Unfortunately, this story ended the very next week as the Blackhawks lost a highly-contested game to the South Lyon East Cougars. In that season-ending loss, the improbable run to the league championship came full circle. The team cherished it more than anything.
“It was everything. It was a great culmination of three years of hard work and dedication from our players. The way we won down the stretch and never giving up was the definition of the type of team we had this year.” coach Brad Zube told The Athletes Hub.
“This was a special team this year and the boys earned this title. It was great to do it at home in front of a great crowd and share the night with our community.”
If you are asking about the importance of the Brandon Blackhawks story, let’s have the players explain:
“Being a Blackhawk football player means that you are a part of a family – a great family that accepts everyone as long as you show up every day and do your part. We have tried over the past three years to make being a ‘Blackhawk’ a source of great pride for all of our players, parents, fans, and our community.” Zube told The Athletes Hub.
“I think what makes being a ‘Hawk’ so special is because we’ve all grown up together, all lived in the same little town, and have played together in the past. We have known each other our whole lives since BJB (Brandon Jr. Blackhawks), which helped the chemistry.” said safety Brandon Gunn.
“Being a Brandon Blackhawk is special due to the fact that I feel like we are always the underdog. We were always the team being doubted – expected to fail. Having this behind us gives us extreme motivation, making us grind harder. All of the people saying “no” only makes us want it more.” said linebacker Jacob Irwin.
The team captains, Jacob Irwin, Mathew Harrison, Mike Nicaj, and Matt Hill, lead by example this year. They were voted on as captains by their peers, which is something that didn’t go unnoticed.
“It felt good to know they had my back and trusted me to be a leader of the team,” Harrison said. “It almost felt like a lot of my work paid off because being voted captain was one of my goals, so when it was official, I was excited and ready to get to work.”
“It felt good to be a leader for the team. I always wanted to step up and show the younger guys what it’s like to lead a football team, and show them what varsity football is like.” Nicaj told The Athletes Hub.
One man with a unique perspective on this program is Matt Lentz. Lentz played for the Blackhawks when he was in high school, eventually attending the University of Michigan before reaching the NFL. Nowadays, Lentz coaches the Blackhawks offensive and defensive lines. It was the offensive line that was instrumental in the team’s success this year.
“Guys that play offensive line are a unique breed – they have to be selfless. There is a saying for Offensive line: “Over worked and under paid”. These guys all came to work every day. The success came from the effort they put in every day. It didn’t just happen on game day.” coach Lentz told The Athletes Hub.
“It came through the will to push themselves to be better every day. To get better every day, that’s where the success came from. They put in the effort, together, when no one else was around. I couldn’t be more proud of this entire group.”
The aforementioned Matt Hill and Mike Nicaj were given All-State honors for 2018. Hill was named to the All-State Dream Team. He was a four-year varsity starter with the Blackhawks, playing in 41 consecutive games without missing a single snap. Hill was one of the most respected players in the locker room, and a living embodiment of what Blackhawks football was all about.
“Watching Matt, I was able to watch him turn into a true leader. He is a prime example of someone you want on your team, great character. There are many things I love about Matt, but the one thing I love the most is his offensive line mentality.” coach Lentz said about Hill’s progression. “As I said, the offensive line has to be selfless, and he was. I don’t think anyone expected more out of Matt than I did. I would push him harder and harder.”
Lentz continued, ”
“What I saw each time was someone that didn’t get discouraged or frustrated, like nothing was ever good enough. I saw was someone who took a moment, accepted what was being said and got after it. He will be the first to tell you that no matter what he did, I always wanted more.”
“Matt has been great for us and progressed the way you would expect an All-State caliber player to. He works so hard in the offseason in the weight room and by going to camps. He put the time in to be great and it has paid off for him this year, and really his whole career.” coach Zube said.
“It’s pretty unprecedented for a player to start 41 straight games without ever missing a snap. He has been incredibly coachable these past three years and has really dedicated himself to his craft.”
What does all this mean? What does a winning Blackhawk program mean? What does a First Responders game mean? What does a league championship mean? To this team and community, it’s everything. When you’re a small town, you often get overlooked. On the contrary, you are able to build bonds with the rest of the community. When the football team wins, it isn’t just the football team that wins.
To everyone in Brandon, thank you for the support we received this year. I told coach Zube on the bus ride back to Brandon from Atwood that I was the only sports writer who picked us to win that game. I hope this trip down memory lane was enjoyable, and that my platform gets our story out there for the whole world to see.
This is all love. This is all for you.
Photo Credit: Tom Tomich
Before I go, allow me to tell you about Mark Tabar. Tabar, his wife, and 7 children lost everything in a house fire shortly before Christmas. He is a teacher at Brandon High School and is well respected by everyone, especially the football team. The family started a GoFundMe, and I hope you can donate. Click here to donate. If you can’t, please share the link around so the family can receive the help they need.
Featured Photo Credit: Tom Tomich
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