DETROIT — After a one-year hiatus, Ithaca has regained its Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 6 football champion title.
Yellowjackets senior quarterback Jake Smith ran for three touchdowns and threw for another in a 27-20 win over Clinton Friday at Ford Field, Ithaca's fifth state title in six years.
The Yellowjackets had a nation-best 69-game winning streak snapped by Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central in last year's championship game.
"It's hard for me to put them in numerical order and say 'this one's my favorite one' or 'that one's my favorite one,'" Ithaca coach Terry Hessbrook said of comparing his state championship teams.
"But I'll say this about this group of seniors: I don't think that any class at Ithaca has ever dedicated themselves to winning a championship more than this class has, and that's why it was so important for them to do that."
After falling behind 13-0 early in the third quarter when Clinton All-State running back Matthew Sexton scored on a 56-yard run, Ithaca (14-0) scored on four consecutive possessions while not allowing the Redskins (13-1) to gain a first down on three straight drives.
Smith, who was limited to six rushing yards in the first half, gained 120 on 20 carries in the second half and scored on runs of 14, 11 and 1 yards. He also completed 10 of 21 passes for 180 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown to senior captain Spence DeMull. DeMull had four receptions for 89 yards.
"It's a great feeling, but I definitely couldn't have done it without my teammates," Smith said. "The offensive line did a tremendous job and that definitely had a large impact on my running game in the second half."
Hessbrook said he was hard on Smith at halftime. "I told him to be the best player on the field in the second half," Hessbrook said. "You know what? I think he was."
Clinton coach Scott McNitt had already agreed, using the same "best player on the field" phrase in the Redskins' postgame press conference that preceded Ithaca's appearance.
"In the first half, we did what we wanted to do and kept him in front of us," McNitt said. "But in the third quarter, he found something and he showed he was the best player on the field. Give him his accolades. He's an outstanding football player."
Clinton's Noah Poore caught a first-quarter touchdown pass and scored on a short run with 4:59 remaining to make it 27-20 and the Redskins forced an Ithaca turnover on downs with 1:47 left to play. That final drive, which started on Clinton's 30-yard-line, ended near midfield on a Derek Teed fourth-down sack of Clinton quarterback Kaden Kelly.
"We played great defense in the first half, but I think we went through a phase there in the second half where we lost some momentum and got tired," McNitt said. "(Offensively), we're used to getting to the edge and breaking big plays. We got one with Matthew there in the third quarter, but we just couldn't get loose. Then we had to resort to our passing game, which is not our strength, but we gave it what we could."
Sexton finished with 141 rushing yards for Clinton. Ithaca All-State linebacker Jace Demenov led the Yellowjackets with 10 tackles.
Ithaca's four straight Division 6 titles included a 41-22 win over Clinton in 2013.