DETROIT — When his high school football coaching career began nearly six decades ago, success was predicated around a solid running game and a strong defense.
Yet, as he was surrounded by his players Nov. 23, a smile painted across his face and a state championship trophy in hand, it was a pair of trick plays that brought Al Fracassa the most recent, and very possibly final, victory of his legendary career.
“To be part of a game like this was tremendous,” Fracassa said after Rice defeated Muskegon High 35-28 in the Division 2 championship at Ford Field. “It’s traumatic being part of it when there’s so much going on. I mean, it’s a little bit chaotic because it seemed like it would never end. … I think I really started to enjoy it when it finally did end.”
A wild one
The game matched an 11-win Brother Rice team against a 12-win Muskegon squad that was averaging 37 points per game and allowing just 18.
“I’d been seeing them in my sleep,” Fracassa joked about the players Muskegon rolled out. The Big Reds were constructed with equal parts skill, speed and athleticism. “There were so many excellent athletes over there.”
But Rice struck first — twice, actually.
After Shon Powell raced for 54 yards, senior quarterback Cheyne Lacanaria hit his brother, Corey, on a post pattern and a 16-yard score midway through the opening quarter.
On the Warriors’ next possession, Alex Malzone tossed a 9-yard touchdown pass to Josh Flye, and the defending D-2 champs led 14-0 with 10:12 remaining in the first half.
Muskegon got on the board roughly four minutes later with a score of its own, but play on the field crawled to a virtual stalemate until late in the third quarter.
The Big Reds tied the game at 14-14 with 1:58 remaining in the third, setting up a wild fourth quarter that would feature five touchdowns and fireworks everywhere — from offense to defense, to special teams.
Powell scored on a 12-yard run to give the Warriors a 21-14 lead with 9:30 remaining.
Muskegon came back to tie the game five minutes later.
Rice’s counterpunch came with a bit of razzle-dazzle, as Malzone hit Corey Lacanaria on a 77-yard flea flicker with just 3:29 remaining in the fourth.
Again, Muskegon answered, evening the game at 28-28 just 58 seconds later, all but assuring this wild ride would have to be settled in overtime.
Trick or treat
Fracassa wasn’t willing to wait that long, though, and against his better judgment, gave the go-ahead to assistant coach Dave Sofran to call a trick play on the ensuing kickoff.
“We practiced it last week, but I told one of my coaches that I didn’t think we could do it (in a game),” Fracassa said of a designed, cross-field lateral. “It’s tough (to call that play), especially with your back up against the wall, but we had to try something.”
Sophomore Delano Madison fielded the kick at his own 4-yard line, started sprinting to the sideline to his right, only to slam on the brakes and heave the ball across the field to junior Jason Alessi.
“Once I heard we were going to call that, I was pretty excited,” Alessi said with a laugh. “I didn’t know it’d go for a touchdown, but I knew it could be a big play.”
When he caught the lateral, his eyes lit up.
“I knew right away,” he added. “All I could think was not to get tackled.”
Alessi, a basketball and lacrosse standout who joined the football team last year in Week 8 to serve as a kicker, ran 91 yards for the title-clinching score, handing Fracassa his eighth state title while earning Rice its first ever back-to-back championships.
“It’s crazy, unexplainable,” said Corey Lacanaria, the game’s leading receiver with 137 yards and two touchdowns. “It’s just awesome.”
“It’s an honor to do this,” senior Jon Reschke said of winning consecutive titles. “There’ve been so many college or even NFL players with this program that never did what we just did.”
“It’s kind of hard to express,” Fracassa said of the second straight championship win of his career. “I’ve never accomplished this, ever. … I’m kind of proud of that. I fit in that category now.”
Will he return?
A year ago, Fracassa sat in the same post-final press conference answering some of the same questions about his future.
Following the 2011 game, he said he hadn’t made up his mind, but was having too much fun to walk away.
Following this year’s contest, he spoke like a man seriously considering the next chapter in life.
“I have to go home and talk to my wife about this,” he said with a smile, noting how fast his 80th birthday came and went a few weeks ago. “I love the game. It’s done so much for me … but I have to make the decision pretty soon.”
Fracassa said he’d likely decide around Christmas, but wouldn’t say if he was leaning one way or the other.
Last game or not, he made one promise about the victory and what it will always mean to him.
“It’s one of those ‘forever games,’” he added with a smile. “When we get together in 10 years or so, God willing I am still here, it’s (a win) we’ll still be talking about