TRAVERSE CITY — Tim Richards hasn’t missed many Traverse City Central football games since his playing days in the 1980s.
He certainly doesn’t plan to miss Friday.
A running back on the 1985 state champion Trojans squad, Richards has attended every game but one this season — including the road and playoff games on Central’s path to the Division 2 state championship game Friday against No. 1-ranked Warren De La Salle.
Richards’ affinity for the program shows when he talks and refers to the team as “we.” But he’s about as close as you can get without being on the team or a coach. Trojans’ star Carson Bourdo lives just down the road, after all.
Like a lot of Trojans athletes from that timeframe, Richards didn’t necessarily like it when the school split into TC Central and Traverse City West in 1997. Both programs turned into consistent winners, but Central took longer to find its footing.
“It’s such a good story about the school splitting and laying the foundation,” said Richards, who plans to watch the 1 p.m. title game Friday at Ford Field in Detroit. “It’s been fun to watch the last 33 years and see the development of the program.”
There’s been plenty to take in over the 33-year span between championship appearances.
The 1988 Trojans are the last of three to bring a football state championship to the school.
The 24-14 outcome against Detroit Catholic Central looks closer than it was. The Shamrocks scored in the closing minutes to make it look more respectable.
Central set the tone early with a drive that consumed most of the first quarter and ended with a Mike Nadlicki touchdown.
“It really took a toll on Detroit Catholic,” starting quarterback Greg Lobdell said. “It sent a message and set the tone for the game.”
Dave Halachukas — a founder of 4th And Goal, a group that’s helped raise money for most of the upgrades at Thirlby Field over the last two decades — said Marc Burkholder delivered what he calls one of the best plays in Trojan history on that drive.
“He had probably one of the most unbelievable blocks in Michigan high school football history,” Halachukas said. “Marc is running a drag at the Silverdome in the first quarter and Greg Lobdell was flushed out of the pocket. Marc hit their big star defensive end and hit him so hard he went into another Detroit Catholic Central kid, and that kid went back into another. There’s three guys on the ground and Marc’s there standing over them.”
TC Central kicker Josh Wuerfel kicked a 46-yard field goal, one that remains the longest in Michigan state finals history, to give Central a 10-0 halftime lead. The Trojans held the Shamrocks to 17 yards of total offense prior to halftime.
Lobdell said legendary Central coach Jim Ooley sensed he was nervous before the game and came over to talk to him.
“He came up to me and said, ‘Isn’t this great? Look at the crowd up there. Let’s have some fun out there,’” said Lobdell.
Lodbell’s father, Wayne, ran the final leg of relay from Traverse City to Detroit, with the runners carrying a windsock the entire way to raise money for the band and cheerleaders to attend the game. When Wayne entered the Silverdome with the windsock aloft, the Trojan faithful that dominated half of the NFL stadium erupted in cheers.
Lobdell said the Trojans ran their first play straight at DCC’s all-state nose guard, triple-teaming him on the way to a decent gain — just to send a message that he wasn’t going to dictate the day. Central converted two fourth downs on that first drive.
“I just remember walking in and on the whole side of the stadium was Traverse City fans and they stood up and cheered,” backup quarterback Eric Breithaupt said. “You never forget that.”
PAST TO PRESENT
The 1987 Trojans lost a 22-20 decision to East Kentwood in Week Nine, falling just shy of the playoffs. A win there would likely have snuck Central (7-2) into the postseason, as both losses came to top-ranked teams. The other was 13-7 to Birmingham Brother Rice, a team this year’s squad beat 56-13 to raise eyebrows around the state.
“This year’s team is similar to that team,” said Lobdell, who attended Central’s first state championship win in 1978 as a child. “We got so close the year before, and had that bad taste in our mouth the next year.”
The 2020 Trojans lost in the state semifinals to eventual state champ Muskegon Mona Shores and Mr. Football-winner Brady Rose.
This time around, it’s Central with a Mr. Football candidate in Josh Burnham, a Notre Dame commit at linebacker.
“It’s more exciting than I thought it’d be,” Breithaupt said. “I don’t know if that’s because my sons are involved. It’ll be amazing to pass the torch to these guys.”
Breithaupt’s oldest son, Nolan, graduated last year, and Louie was called up from junior varsity for the playoffs.
Traverse City St. Francis lost in last week’s Division 7 semifinal to Pewamo-Westphalia, while Suttons Bay advanced to the eight-player Division 1 championship game for the third straight year before a second consecutive loss to Adrian Lenawee Christian.
“We were rooting for St. Francis and Suttons Bay last week,” Breithaupt said. “It’s great to see the success football is having up north.”
That mantra is one that still rings out, as the 2021 team uses its dismissal by downstate media as “just another mediocre Up North team” — forgetting the program’s dominance in the 1970s and ‘80s — as motivation.
Nate Alger, the starting nose guard at about 160 pounds (but listed at 180 on the roster), has coached the Trojan softball program the last eight years. He brings up his championship experience frequently to his teams.
“We were all pretty close,” Alger said. “We practiced well together and didn’t take shortcuts in practice. The camaraderie was just great. It’s the best team I’ve had experience with.”
While the high school split hurt football especially, Alger said it’s been rewarding seeing his alma mater come back around on the gridiron.
“When I look at this team, they are exciting to watch,” Alger said. “The overall speed they have, I don’t think we had that.”
Instead, the Ooley-led Trojans relied on a disciplined full-house offense with two halfbacks and a fullback in the backfield.
Kelly Clark has come full circle with the Trojans. The 1988 all-state cornerback is now an assistant coach with Central, and his twins are seniors there.
“I certainly appreciate it much more now than I did then,” said Clark, one of three former Trojan head coaches now on staff under head coach Eric Schugars, along with Tom Passinault and Roger Wood. “I really hope for a win for this group of kids. They’ve worked so hard and done everything that’s been asked of them.”
His simple advice to this year’s players?
“Enjoy the week, soak in the moment and do your best to enjoy the time,” he said. “It’ll stay with you forever.”
Dan Sarya, the Trojans’ starting center in 1988, said his Trojan teammates still get together to relive the glory days. He hopes this year’s team will be able to relive the same championship memories.
“It’s something we grew up with, and it’s nice to see it back,” Sarya said. “The feeling of getting there is one thing, but the feeling coming back if you win is something that’ll stick for the rest of your life.”
ALIVE IN ‘85
The 1985 Trojans toured the state after the 1984 dissolution of the Lake Michigan Athletic Conference left the Trojans without a league until 1990.
The globe-trotting squad ventured outside the state to play Toledo Whitmer in Ohio for its fourth game, a 21-16 win over the quality foe.
Central beat Muskegon 22-21 in their most fierce rivalry at the time, scoring on a hook-and-ladder play with 13 seconds remaining as quarterback Chris Hathaway passed to Jeff Durocher who lateraled to Doug Lautner for the score to pull the Trojans within a point. Ooley made the decision to go for a two-point conversion and the win. Hathaway ran the same play to DeRocher that he’d earlier thrown an interception on that was returned for a TD. This time, it was successful.
After the INT return score put Muskegon up a touchdown, the 5-0 Trojans didn’t give up.
“Roger Wood just came over and said, ‘It’s not over!’” safety Marty Lobdell said.
Indeed, it wasn’t. Central’s last-minute comeback and 22-21 victory propelled the Trojans to three straight blowout victories and into the playoffs with an unblemished record.
The perfect record gave Central home-field advantage in the opening postseason round, and the Trojans again defeated Muskegon, this time 28-14 at snowy Thirlby Field as Lobdell intercepted a pass.
Central used its large team to build in a major advantage: Nobody played on both sides of the ball. No other team in the state did that.
That led to a team that didn’t tire late in games and, as a result, was able to wear opponents down.
“A lot of the Detroit teams were way faster than us,” Marty Lobdell said. “I think we beat one 60-0. They just didn’t have the system.”
Central beat Detroit Osborn and Detroit Cass Tech by a combined 109-8 score, sandwiched around the Muskegon game.
Not a single player from that championship team went on to play Division 1 football. The 1988 produced four players who’d go on to play at the University of Michigan — Burkholder and Nadlicki on scholarship and Greg Lobdell and Wuerfel as walk-ons.
The ‘85 Trojans defeated Grand Blanc 36-20 on the road and then Ann Arbor Pioneer 19-10 in a muddy neutral-site game in Lansing.
The Trojans had two 1,000-yard rushers in Lautner and Tony Olson, who recently passed away. Hathaway threw for 1,000 yards across a baker’s dozen games as Central became the first program to win 13 games in a season with newly-expanded playoffs adding one more round.
“Chris knew every single position and what they should be doing,” said running back Josh Fiebing. “And if he didn’t know it, he made it up and you did it.”
The Trojans didn’t give up a single point in the third quarter all season thanks to Central coaches’ adjustments to their opponents at halftime.
WIDE EYES, FULL HEARTS
Playing in the Silverdome, the Detroit Lions’ old stadium, was an eye-opener for tight end Lance Morgan, whose son Jake played this season for TC West.
“It’s one of those things that regardless of the outcome, it’ll make lifelong memories,” said Morgan, who has served as principal at Traverse City High School for the last 22 years.
Richards said there were so many people going to Detroit for the game that a sign in Traverse City read, “Last one out of town, turn off the lights.”
The team received a police escort back from Cadillac to Traverse City and thousands of fans greeted the triumphant Trojans when they arrived back at the school in the middle of the night. Richards said the players thought the bus was being pulled over when police lights came on.
Ooley had the team sell 2-liter bottles of pop door to door and deliver Papa J’s pizza to people camping in line for season tickets.
Yes, people camped for days outside the school to ensure season tickets. With only one public school in town, crowds for games were massive by today’s standards, equaling that of the TC Patriot Game for any home game.
Morgan said he’d heard rumors of people camping out for season tickets, but he didn’t believe it until seeing it for himself.
“It was a real awakening how supportive this community can be,” said Morgan, one of a few sophomores on varsity, along with Gary Rakan. “I thought people were pulling my leg because I was 15, but sure enough, it happened. It was eye-opening.”
“There’s a certain amount of awe being a sophomore (at the Silverdome),” said Rakan, a linebacker who’d go on to play at Central Michigan University. “It’s so unique because of what Coach Ooley built. It was about the team and all the activities.
Rakan plans to attend Friday’s title game, as his son Tyler plays for Lansing Catholic in the Division 6 championship immediately following the Trojans.
Similar to the 1988 team, a loss the year before helped motivate the team.
The 1984 Trojans lost 43-42 in a Week Nine tilt against Escanaba, finishing 7-2. The other loss came at the hands of Benton Harbor, but Central beat Muskegon 29-8 and also had impressive wins over Detroit Catholic Central, East Kentwood, Muskegon Mona Shores and Muskegon Catholic Central along the way.
THREE DECADES LATER
In the 33 years since Central’s last state championship football appearance, the program experienced a bumpy ride, to say the least.
Following the 1988 title, the Trojans slipped to 3-5 a season later. The 1990 and ‘91 seasons each brought a 9-2 record and one playoff win. Then the Trojans languished at 5-4 for four straight years through 1995, going 6-3 in 1996 and 0-9 in 1997, the first winless season on record in the program’s history dating back to 1896.
Five straight 36 campaigns ensued before winning seasons from 2003-05, although none produced a postseason victory. The 2006 season saw another 0-9 record, followed by consecutive five-win seasons. The 2012 team under Passinault produced the first nine-win season since 1991 at 9-2.
Eric Schugars took over in 2015, and immediately the Trojans’ tide turned. Central won no less than seven contests in any of Schugars’ seasons, including this year’s 12-1 team that’ll be one of 16 left in the state playing Friday and Saturday.
“What a change,” Greg Lobdell said. “It’s amazing how they’ve been able to regroup and build back up.”
The 1985 championship team was carved out of a school of 2,975 students, with an enrollment of 2,918 in 1988. By 1995 and 1996, Traverse City had an enrollment of 3,335 students and the school was split into two separate schools in 1997 — with Traverse City West immediately taking control of the ensuing rivalry.
“The program has come a long way,” Hathaway said. “Coach Schugars and his staff have made huge strides. It’s good to see the program being very successful. West has been very good, for that matter.”
West produced a winning record each of the last six seasons, and the Titans dominated the rivalry with Central early on. The record has since evened out.
“Some people were probably concerned it’d never be back to that level,” Rakan said. “It’s tremendously satisfying to see the things they’re accomplishing.”
This year’s Trojans haven’t lost a game since a Week One loss to defending state champion DeWitt, which Richards said only served to motivate the team.
“This is absolutely the best thing to happen to us, I hate to say,” Richards said. “Now, I think we beat them by two or three TDs. This team has been so fun to watch. I don’t expect to win a state championship every year, but the foundation is there.”
Fiebing, a running back on the 1985 team who’s now an assistant coach to Alger in the softball program, attended every home game this season and each postseason contest but the snowy win over Caledonia in Grandville two weeks ago.
“It’s about our community and the future Trojan players that pose for photos with Josh Burnham,” Fiebing said. “We were lucky enough to get on the field, but ultimately, it’s the community’s program.”
Richards even attended every home game when the Trojans went 0-9. Twice.
The games remind him of his team’s game-day breakfasts at Flap Jack Shack.
“You don’t realize how big a thing it was until you look back at it years later,” Richards said. “The fever is high now, and it’s great what is going on now at TC Central.”