Forest Park’s ‘unlikely, unselfish’ state football champions

High School Football

Burt Angeli/The Daily News Photo Forest Park head coach Dave Graff, right, and assistant Gerard Valesano distribute state championship gold medals to managers Payton Woollard, Adrian Bruette, Hunter Loehr, Ethan Williams and Will Curtis during the welcome home celebration Saturday night in Eddie Chambers Gymnasium. “You are the next chapter in Forest Park football,” Graff told the managers.

CRYSTAL FALLS – Michigan’s first Eight-Player Division 2 state football champions looked nothing of the sort in the third week of the season.

Just a week after a gutsy performance that beat defending state champion North Central in overtime, Forest Park trailed Stephenson 26-0 at halftime.

Yes, Forest Park played that game with players banged up and others unable to play. But Coach Dave Graff feared his team had lost all confidence and didn’t believe in themselves.

“As a coach, complacency will kill you,” Graff said. “I kicked everybody out of the locker room and started chewing on the entire team.”

Forest Park lost that game 42-16. Graff continued his speech Monday, talking about humiliation, pride and what fuels the heart of a champion.

They never lost after what Graff called a “chewing-out session.” The season culminated Saturday with Connor Bortolini and Peter Ropiak running over Portland St. Patrick 54-12 in the Eight-Player Division 2 state championship game at the Superior Dome.

“They believed in each other,” Graff said Saturday night at the welcome home celebration in Eddie Chambers Gymnasium. “They believed in the program at Forest Park.”

“They played as a team,” piped up one of the spectators.

“They played as a team,” Graff said in agreement.

The pre-season drills didn’t indicate state championship quality. During the first practice for charting times in the 40-yard dash, only one player – Bortolini – ran faster than 5.4 seconds.

The eight-player pundits would have laughed at those times, knowing the game was all about speed and quickness.

“Guess what?” Graff said. “They forgot about Forest Park football style (with power, off tackle). They bought into the concept with all of their hearts. They used all of their strength and discipline.

“They were so unselfish. It’s unbelievable what you guys did.”

Bortolini, Ropiak and Robert Ponchaud are the team captains. That long night in Stephenson also told Graff that his team was missing something.

“I knew that we needed a leader and we didn’t have one,” Graff said. “I pushed and pushed, and yelled until I found that leader.”

Robert Ponchaud, No. 58, stood up. The right guard is a key to the offensive line that Graff calls the strength of the team.

“Coach, I’m that man, I will be that person,” Graff recalled Ponchaud saying. “Any time down the stretch when we needed a yard, the person we were going to run behind was Robert Ponchaud.”

Ponchaud said his team was capable of winning a state title.

“We knew we could make it here,” Ponchaud said on WIKB. “We just had to try to spread that belief.”

For the season, Bortolini rushed for over 2,000 yards and Ropiak topped 1,000. Late in the year, after Ropiak had recovered from a foot injury, Graff informed Bortolini that his number of carries would be reduced. Ropiak needed the work.

“Coach, I just want to win,” replied Bortolini when told Ropiak would be sharing the load at running back.

“It’s that unselfishness that makes us who we are,” Graff said.

Forest Park didn’t throw a pass in beating Portland St. Patrick in the championship. Graff joked that it was difficult running pass routes when you’re practicing in the gym.

With perfect conditions in the dome, Forest Park primarily had direct snaps to Bortolini (197 yards, four touchdowns) and Ropiak (275 yards, three touchdowns).

Graff called Bortolini and Ropiak up to the podium during the celebration Saturday night.

“There are teams that gel at the right time, and we did,” Graff said. “You only do that with proper leadership. You have two guys that are unselfish, that are going to take whatever position you give them and are going to encourage their teammates. They’re going to do whatever it takes.

“The reason why we are state champions is because of the unselfishness of these two players, hard-nosed players with a will to win.”

Graff called Bortolini and Ropiak, two of the Trojans’ seven seniors, a “two-headed monster.”

“They’re fun to watch and tough to stop,” Graff said. “Why we run the ball so well is because we have intelligent people on the line of scrimmage. You can’t run against teams that are making adjustments if you don’t have smart people. It’s difficult to make adjustments.”

The other Forest Park seniors are Zach Robarge, Josh and Jonah Logan, Tyler Peltoma and Robert Ponchaud.

Graff joined Dick Mettlach (Class D, 1975 and 1976) and Bill Santilli (Division 8, 2007) as Forest Park coaches with state championships. Santilli, now the athletic director, wore a team sideline coat at the celebration with the previous state title years listed.

Bortolini and Ropiak running in the dome brought back memories of Santilli plowing through defenses in 1975.

“This was Forest Park-style football since the Dick Mettlach-Rudy Valesano era perfected into a team,” Santilli said. “This doesn’t happen by chance but by hard work, dedication, work ethic, respect for your opponent and all the things we preach to our children.”

“Guys, you put on a performance today that is second to none in a state championship final.”

Graff assisted Santilli for many years. Varsity Assistant Gerard Valesano has been a Forest Park player and coach for many years. Mick Valesano and Brian Fabbri also help out.

“You are not going to find a more dedicated staff that understands the kids more,” Graff said.

Gerard Valesano, son of the late longtime assistant Rudy, said Graff “brings a ton of knowledge.”

“This day forward, as long as you live, there’s hardly going to be a day that you won’t think about what you did today,” Valesano told the players. “This is going to come up so often throughout your lives in what you accomplished and it’s going to make you better people.”

Forest Park Superintendent Becky Waters had a couple of her elementary students hand out “P-o-w-e-r” bars to the players. The Trojans epitomized pride, organization, winning attitude, effort and respect.

Josh Logan told her, “Mrs. Waters, we’re not going up there to get the small one (trophy). We’re coming home with the big one.”

Principal Lisa Olson said “what a day for Crystal Falls Forest Park. We could not be prouder of these fine student athletes.”

Graff also saluted the “unbelievable” community support including the “spaghetti moms” for team dinners and “prayer wardens” to avoid injuries.

“All of the state finals that we’ve been to, never have we had this many Trojan supporters in one place,” Graff said of backing in the dome and also the frigid weather in Pickford for the state semifinals.

So the slow, power-football team with nicknames like “Spud, Big Money, Pretty Boy, Cheeks, Bacon and Big T” definitely earned the school’s fourth state football championship.

“What we have here are the most unlikely state champions that you’ll ever see,” Graff said with a wide smile. “I’m not kidding.”