Santilli led Trojans’ reign in new millenium with six straight state finals appearances
Norway’s Milbrath selected as Offensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons
By MATT “SWEETS” McCARTHY
IRON MOUNTAIN– Each fall since 1949, after the high school football season, the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association meets to select an All-UP football team.
Though the format has changed over the years, the group of media members also gives out various special awards each year.
This segment will highlight area teams, players, coaches and natives recognized this century for their accomplishments, including Player of the Year, U.P Team of the Year and U.P Coach of the Year.
The first segment in this series highlighted from 1949-1979; for the majority of that era, there was no postseason. The second segment covered the years 1980-1999.
This final segment includes the 8-player Team of the Year, which began in 2015. In 2011, the U.P. Coach of the Year awards, as well as the Player of the Year awards, were renamed Big 5 and Little 5 Player and Coach of the Year, respectively. In 2016, an 8-player category for each of these awards was also added.
Big 5 schools are the Division 1-6 U.P. schools, while the Little 5 schools are Division 7 and 8 schools in the 11-player field. In 2019, it was again renamed, to Large School (Big 5) and Small School (Little 5).
Iron Mountain and head coach Tom Wender began the new millennium in 2000 with a trip to the Silverdome. They defeated Gobles 25-23 to capture the Division 7 state championship, and were named U.P. Class C Team of the Year.
The other two Team of the Year selections were also area teams. Class D Coach of the Year Bill Santilli of Forest Park led the Trojans to the Division 8 state championship game, falling to perennial powerhouse Muskegon Catholic Central 13-6.
The Trojans earned Class D Team of the Year, with the Kingsford Flivvers snaring the Class AB honors. Kingsford won also won the Class AB award in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008-2010, 2012 and 2017.
Forest Park’s Jess Bortolini was named Class D Offensive Player of the Year in 2000, while Mike Wales of Iron Mountain was named Class ABC Defensive Player of the Year.
The Flivvers’ Dave Lucas was the Class ABC Offensive Player of the Year selection in 2001. North Dickinson’s 9-0 regular season record earned them Class D Team of the Year, finishing 12-1 overall, falling in the Division 8 semifinals to Gaylord St. Mary.
The Nordics recorded a second consecutive 9-0 regular season and Class D Team of the Year selection in 2002, finishing 11-1 overall. A 6-3 Norway Knights team led by Brad Grayvold advanced to the Division 7 semifinals in 2002, falling to Decatur at Gaylord.
In 2003, Forest Park was selected as UP Class D Team of the Year, finishing the regular season 9-0, and 11-1 overall. Zack Tatar of the Trojans was the Class D Defensive Player of the Year selection.
Forest Park made a trip to Pontiac for the state championship game in 2004, falling to Climax-Scotts in Division 8. The Trojans were tabbed as U.P. Class D Team of the Year in the process.
In 2005, Norway junior running back Phil Milbrath was named unanimous Class ABC Offensive Player of the Year. Class D Coach of the Year Bill Santilli led the Trojans back to the Division 8 state championship game, following a 9-0 regular season.
Forest Park was named Class D Team of the Year in ’05, falling to Mendon 25-13 at Ford Field in Detroit, the new home of the Detroit Lions. Brian Fabbri of the Trojans was named Class D Defensive Player of the Year.
It marked the first year since 1975 the MHSAA state championship football games were not played at the Pontiac Silverdome. The former home of the Detroit Lions and Pistons is now torn down and a vacant lot off of I-75.
Phil Milbrath received his second consecutive selection as Class ABC Offensive Player of the Year in 2006, finishing up his high school career as one of the most prolific players in Norway history. He led the 7-2 Knights to the Division 7 semifinals, falling to Muskegon Catholic Central at the Superior Dome in Marquette.
Also in ’06 Forest Park returned to Ford Field for the Division 8 state championship game, falling to New Lothrop 34-13 to finish the season 11-3. North Dickinson was named Class D Team of the Year following a 9-0 regular season, finishing the season 10-1.
Iron Mountain in 2006, was named Class C Team of the Year, finishing 8-3. The Mountaineers received a consecutive Class C Team of the Year selection in 2007.
Kingsford, who handed the Mountaineers their lone regular season loss in 2007, advanced to the Division 4 semifinals, falling to Marine City.
After an 8-1 regular season and a Class D Team of the Year selection in 2007, Forest Park captured the Division 8 state championship, with a 22-14 win over Middleton-Fulton at Ford Field. Kyle LaVacque of the Trojans was named as Class D Offensive Player of the Year.
Repeating as Class D Team of the Year in 2008, Forest Park completed a 9-0 regular season and made another trip to Ford Field for the Division 8 state championship game. Class D Coach of the Year Bill Santilli and the Trojans fell to Muskegon Catholic Central in the championship game.
Also in ’08, Iron Mountain finished the regular season 9-0 and was named Class C Team of the Year, finishing with a 11-1 record overall. Pat Flood of the Mountaineers was named Class ABC Offensive Player of the Year.
Santilli and the 11-3 Trojans again advanced to the Division 8 state championship game at Ford Field in 2009. Beal City defeated the Trojans 41-23.
Both UPSSA Defensive Player of the Year awards landed in Dickinson County in 2009. Winston Larson of Kingsford was the Class ABC selection, while Michael Miller of North Dickinson was the Class D selection.
Iron Mountain and Forest Park both advanced to the semifinals in Division 6 and Division 8, respectively, in 2010. Iron Mountain and head coach Scott Boddy fell to Ithaca and the Trojans lost to Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart, with both games being played at the Superior Dome.
Paul Kuoppala of the Mountaineers was named Class ABC Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
North Central head coach Kevin Bellefeuil was named unanimous Class D Coach of the Year. Bellefeuil led the Jets to their best record since 1998 and to their fourth and final 11-player playoff appearance in school history.
Iron Mountain changed head coaches in 2011, and first year head man Robin Marttila was named Big 5 Coach of the Year. He led the Mountaineers to an 8-0 regular season and a second consecutive Division 6 semifinals appearance versus Ithaca.
Hall of Fame North Dickinson head coach Joe Reddinger was named Little 5 Coach of the Year in ’11. Jacob Siler of Forest Park was the Little 5 Offensive Player of the Year selection.
In 2012, Reddinger repeated as Little 5 Coach of the Year. He led the Nordics to an 8-0 regular season, finishing 10-1 overall. Leading the Flivvers to their 15th of 16 Class AB Team of the Year selections in his Hall of Fame career, Chris Hofer of Kingsford was named Big 5 Coach of the Year.
Also in 2012, Kingsford’s Reed Larson was named the Big 5 Offensive Player of the Year.
Coach Santilli of the Trojans was named as the Little 5 Coach of the Year while leading Forest Park to the Class D Team of the Year award after a 9-0 regular season. Forest Park advanced to Division 8 semifinals, falling to Beal City at the Superior Dome
The Little 5 Defensive Player of the Year selection for 2013 was Eric Prestay of North Central.
In 2014, the Little 5 Offensive Player of the Year selection was Forest Park’s Lee Graff, while the Big 5 Defensive Player of the year award went to another Iron County player, Max Maloney of West Iron County.
The Little 5 Defensive Player of the Year award in ’14 was given to two players. Jonas Christian of North Dickinson and St. Ignace junior Gage Kreski split the award. Kreski’s father is Florence High School graduate Paul Kreski.
Kreski was the sole selection as Little 5 Defensive Player fo the Year in 2015. He is currently a Central Michigan University starting defensive back.
Bellefeuil and the Jets won the first of consecutive 8-player state championships in 2015. Their 9-0 regular season resulted in an 8-player Team of the Year selection. At downstate Greenville High School, North Central defeated Battle Creek St. Phillip 58-33 in the state championship game.
In 2016, the Jets repeated as 8-player Team of the Year, with another 9-0 regular season. They defeated Deckerville at Greenville High School 58-22 for the state title.
Current Western Michigan University basketball player Jason Whitens of North Central shared 8-player Player of the Year honors with running back Daniel Nocerini of Forest Park.
Also in 2016, Norway head coach Bob Madigan was named Little 5 Coach of the Year. Madigan led the Knights to a 9-3 record and their best season since 2006.
A different area team captured an 8-player state championship in 2017. The MHSAA added a second division to the 8-player playoffs that season, and Forest Park won the Division 2 crown, defeating Portland St. Patrick 54-12 at the Superior Dome.
Trojans head coach David Graff was named UP 8-player Coach of the Year, while Peter Ropiak was named 8-player Defensive Player of the Year.
West Iron County was named Division 8/Class D Team of the Year, finishing the regular season 8-1. The Mike Berutti-led Wykons advanced to the Division 8 semifinals versus Saginaw Nouvel Catholic, falling 17-14.
The final year of this segment, 2019, saw two area teams, coaches and some of their players grab UPSSA special awards. North Central and Iron Mountain finished their regular seasons at 9-0. Both were named unanimous UP Team of the Year in their divisions — 8-player and Small School, respectively. Marttila and Jets head coach Leo Gorzinski tabbed Coach of the Year honors.
Quarterback Marcus Johnson of Iron Mountain was named Small School Offensive Player of the Year. North Central quarterback Noah Gorzinski was named 8-player Offensive Player of the Year.