Oak Park puts early hammerlock on OAA White race with wins over Groves and Harrison
As jumbled as last year’s race for the Oakland Activities Association White Division football title was, is as clear cut as it appears to already be this fall. Oak Park is in position to coast to the crown.
By beating fellow White Division frontrunners Birmingham Groves and Farmington Hills Harrison in Weeks 2 and 3 respectively, the Knights have the hardest two games of the league schedule out of the way and safely tucked in their back pocket. Last season, Oak Park, Groves and Harrison shared the league championship in a three-way tie for bragging rights in the White.
Of the Knights’ four remaining league affairs this year, only one (Troy) is against a team which qualified for the playoffs last season. Troy (1-2) got clobbered by defending Division 1 state champion and OAA Red leader Clarkston 47-7 Friday.
“We’ve given ourselves a leg up in the race, but the race is far from over,” Knights head coach Greg Carter said. “We have a very competitive league. There’s always going to be balance.”
Oak Park (3-0) won a district title in Division 2 last year and returns most of its premier playmakers, including senior quarterback and Ohio State-commit Dwan Mathis, his No. 1 target in the passing game, Maliq Carr and 5-star junior offensive lineman Justin Rogers, who also is proving devastating on defense as a linebacker. Some new standouts have catapulted to the forefront of the conversation too.
Shifty Phillip Stewart is wowing out of the backfield practically out of nowhere. The senior has gone over 140 yards on the ground in each of his first three varsity starts. On Friday, Stewart rushed for 152 yards and scored two touchdowns in Oak Park’s 23-15 win over Harrison at home. His 65-yard scoring dart was breathtaking. His 16-yard touchdown catch on a screen pass put the game away in the fourth quarter. From the defensive side of the ball, junior interior lineman Dondi Price has been a pleasant surprise. Against Harrison (2-1), he collected nine tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
“I don’t know what I would do without this football team, they inspire me so much,” Price said. “I’m trying to make a name for myself in this league and we want an outright (OAA White) title. We’re happy to be 3-0 and get these last two victories, we’re not satisfied yet though. We’re still going to play hungry.”
The storied Harrison program is in its final season, as the school will shutter in June. Distinguished Hawks head coach John Herrington, the state’s winningest sideline general of all-time, built the Harrison pigskin dynasty from scratch and has led the team to a state-record 13 state titles and 18 state finals appearances in the past 49 years. In 2017, his Hawks fell to Muskegon in the Division 3 state championship game.
The vaunted program’s last superstar is tailback-cornerback Roderick Heard, the final in a fraternity of Herrington-mentored Blue Chip recruits. The versatile Heard found the end zone twice versus Oak Park in Week 3 (1-yard run, 85-yard kickoff return). He’s committed to Northwestern as a defensive back. As a junior, he racked up 1,625 yards and 23 touchdowns rushing.
Harrison’s defense hadn’t let up a point entering Friday’s contest, outscoring its opponents 82-0 in the first two weeks of the campaign. Lineman Maverick Hansen (Central Michigan), linebackers Sylvon Brown and Vince Rawls and cornerbacks Heard and Xavier Goldsmith (Colorado State) key the unit. Goldsmith transferred to Harrison from Detroit Cass Tech and just got granted eligibility.
Groves has won three straight OAA White titles. The Falcons claimed the 2015 and 2016 banners outright — the 2016 club appeared in the Division 2 final four. After hard-fought losses to state-ranked foes West Bloomfield and Oak Park to open 2018, the Falcons won their first game of the season Friday, bumping off Stoney Creek 28-6. Harvard-bound cornerback-slot back Khalil Dawsey is getting the job done on both sides of the ball and junior quarterback Markis Alexander has been making steady strides under center since the spring. Alexander threw for 125 yards and two touchdowns and Dawsey scored on a 55-yard run in Week 3.