Ithaca High School football coach Terry Hessbrook likes to tell the story of his team’s 2011 opener, a day in which an injury to his quarterback prompted Hessbrook to call upon a sophomore.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Hessbrook said. “I turned around and said, ‘It’s your show buddy.’”
Travis Smith led Ithaca to a win that game — as well as a win the next 41 games.
Smith, a University of Toledo recruit, has not suffered a football loss since the eighth grade, a string of perfection culminating in an overcrowded trophy case.
Last week he was named the first Michigan High School football player of the year, recognition for a career that produced a state-record 104 touchdown passes and four state titles — the final three with Smith as quarterback.
He finished 41-0 as a starting quarterback, 42-0 as a starter, and 47-0 as a member of varsity. Not included in those tidy won-loss marks are victories he accumulated as a freshman with Ithaca’s unbeaten junior varsity team.
For most of his career Smith toiled in relative obscurity, piling up big numbers against Division 6 competition. Michigan has eight divisions, classified in descending order from biggest to smallest. Rumblings suggesting Smith couldn’t hack it in a higher division fueled his drive.
“There’s some pretty good talent in D-6,” said Smith, who threw for 3,278 yards and 42 TDs this season. “I don’t think they know what they’re talking about. It does fuel me, when I’m working out, how everybody talks how I play in a small school and I’ll never be anything in college.”
Toledo’s coaching staff is of the opinion Smith (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) will acquit himself just fine. The Rockets, headed by the efforts of quarterbacks coach Scott Isphording, secured Smith’s commitment in June.
Holding onto the three-star prospect will be challenging, as Smith’s impressive list of credentials is generating attention from bigger programs. Minnesota coaches spoke with Hessbrook for 30 minutes the other night, and Hessbrook said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Gophers extend an offer to Smith by the end of this week.
Smith, who led Ithaca to a 41-22 win over Clinton in the Nov. 29 state title game, does not anticipate rescinding his commitment.
“I’m 100 percent Toledo right now,” he said. “It would have to be a really good offer that would be a perfect fit for me — more perfect than Toledo — to even consider it.”
Smith added he visited Toledo eight or nine times, “and I like it more and more every time I go down there.”
Toledo coaches are forbidden by NCAA rules to speak publicly about unsigned recruits. The Rockets are expected to sign a small class — 15 players or so — on Feb. 5.
Should he remain faithful to Toledo, Smith will enter next season among four quarterbacks competing to replace multi-year starter Terrance Owens.
Smith does not plan to enroll early — unlike freshman Logan Woodside did last January — and instead is playing point guard on Ithaca’s basketball team, distributing the ball to a starting line up that consists of four receivers from the football team. One of them, his sophomore brother Jake, is being groomed to be Ithaca’s next quarterback.
“He’s not as big yet, but he’s only a sophomore,” Hessbrook said. “Athletically, his feet may be better, which is phenomenal because one of the best things about Travis is his feet.”
Which leads to another Hessbrook story.
Last year, Smith’s junior season, fans were predicting Hemlock’s vaunted defense would end Ithaca’s win streak and bounce the Yellowjackets from the playoffs.
Smith had other designs, completing 24 of 35 passes for 343 yards and five TDs in a 49-14 running-clock win — Ithaca’s 39th straight. Encapsulating his appreciable elusiveness was a pass in which Smith danced around the backfield to evade rushers before chucking the ball down field for a big gain. The play, from start to finish, lasted 29 seconds.
“Not going to lie, I was very tired,” Smith said. “I went over to the sideline after the play and said, ‘All right coach, you need to give it to our running back for a few plays.”
With that, Smith exacted revenge on Hemlock. It was Hemlock who dealt him his last loss, way back in eighth grade.
“I remember every detail,” Smith said. “We lost by four. It sucked, but it was in eighth grade. I got over it.”