(Video will be added tonight)
With the patron saint of Michigan football (Jim Harbaugh) watching in the stands, Saline defeated Pioneer, 27-23, to win its second straight D1 district championship and third in four years.
Saline (10-0) advanced to the regional final against Canton (9-2), which upset previously undefeated Northville, 34-27. The game should be played at 7 p.m., Friday at Hornet Stadium.
The Pioneers gave the Hornets about all they could handle, Friday. They led 13-7 at halftime and 23-20 early in the fourth. But Connor Hibbard’s third rushing touchdown of the game, a 12-yard scamper, with 3:06 to play gave the Hornets the lead. Pioneer moved the ball to the Saline 33 in the game’s final minutes. Cal Livesay broke up a potential game-winning touchdown pass in the end zone on second down and John Raupp sacked Pioneer QB John Kunec on fourth down to seal the victory.
On the one hand, it was a game where Saline barely survived its mistakes. On the other, it was victory owed to dozens of big plays by many players.
“We played through a lot adversity and situations that didn’t work out, and we held it together,” Saline coach Joe Palka said. “We said at halftime that if you want to win a state championship or even get to next week, you had to learn to play from behind.”
“Boy, did our kids battle in the second half and I couldn’t be prouder,” Palka said.
QB Josh Jackson completed 10-of-20 passes for 202 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also ran 15 times for 61 yards. Connor Hibbard ran 11 times for 53 yards and three touchdowns. Jeb Palka caught five paces for 73 yards and ran 5 times for 38 yards. John Raupp led the defense with 13 tackles, including three sacks.
Like last week against Monroe, it took time for the Hornet attack to find its groove. Last week, Jackson seemed to have trouble hitting his targets. This week, the Hornet receivers had difficulty hanging on to catches. Saline went 3-and-out on its first possession. Pioneer took over with good field possession and converted a 4th-and-3 to move the chains once. Sean O’Keefe dropped the Pioneer runner for a loss on first down. On 3rd-and-11, Zachary Owings thought he picked off a pass, but it was ruled incomplete. On 4th-and-11, Kuneck passed to Antjuan Simmons, but Nathan Powers made the stop and Saline took over at the 33.
The Hornets thought they answered with their patented big play. On first down, Jackson connected with a streaking Bryce Wolma over the middle for 67-yard TD play. The play was called back for illegal motion. Three plays later, Saline punted.
With 5:22 to play in the first, Pioneer started at its 33. It went 67 yards on 13 plays for the first touchdown of the game, which came on a 4th-and-12 pass to Cedric Benton for a 28-yard TD. Pioneer led 7-0 with 9:34 left in the half.
Saline took over at its 20 and put together a balanced 17-play drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown by Hibbard with 3:08 to play. Will Breen’s kick was wide. Pioneer led 7-6.
The Pioneers started their next drive at their 12. On 3rd-and-2, Simmons took the hand off, bounced to his left and went all the way for an 80-yard touchdown. The kick was blocked by Joey Salowich. Pioneer led 13-6.
After a holding call on the kickoff return, Saline started at its 10 with 2:03 to play. The drive sputtered but the Hornets got new life when the Pioneers were called for roughing the punter. A pass to Stevie Kise gave Saline a first at the Pioneer 46. It looked like Jackson connected with Monahan for a long touchdown in the end zone. Monahan leaped to catch the ball, but it came loose when he hit the ground. A second end zone try was just out of Monahan’s reach. Saline entered halftime down by a touchdown.
It was the first time the Hornets were down at halftime all year.
“At halftime everybody felt down but the truth of the matter is we gave up two plays,” Pallka said. “We gave up the wheel on the back side and one run to him. We thought we were playing well.”
Saline kicked off to Pioneer to start the half. Cedric Benton, a thorn in Saline’s side all night, found a hole, hit the sideline and looked off to the races until placekicker Ben Stankovic saved the day.
“I kicked it. It wasn’t the best placement. I saw him coming down the sideline. No one was on me so I kept running as quick as I could and I dove and brought him down,” Stankovic said.
Benton was marked down at the Saline seven. It turned out to be a game-saving tackle because the Hornet defense stopped Simmons on the next three plays. Matthew Schickling kicked a short field goal.
“Honestly, when we shut them down after the long kick-off return, I knew right there that we were going to win,” DE John Raupp said. “That was a huge play by Ben.”
Coach Palka agreed.
“There’s another case of a kid stepping up. You wouldn’t think he’d run him down but our kids never quit. If he doesn’t make that play and if our kids don’t hold them to three, we don’t win,” Palka said.
Saline’s next drive started at the 27. Palka gained 34 yards with the jet sweep. And then Jackson struck gold with Bryce Wolma over the middle for a 39-yard TD. This time, it wasn’t called back. Breen’s kick was good. Pioneer led 16-13 with 9:17 to play in the third.
The Hornets got the ball right back when Richard Hovde, back from injury, caught Will Breen’s onside kick before it went out of bounds at the Pioneer 33. Hibbard started the drive with a nine-yard run, but the Pioneers sent the Hornets backward. On 4th-and-3, Jackson dove through the pile for a four-yard pickup. Hibbard added another five-yard rush. Jackson followed with a 16-yard run that ended when he tried to dive over the Pioneer defenders, who pushed him out of bounds at the 1. Two plays later, Hibbard rushed in. Breen’s kick was good. Saline led 20-16 with 5:44 to play in the third.
The Pioneers kept coming, despite the best efforts of the Saline defense. They started at their 40. After moving the chains once, on 4th-and-11, Kunek found Benton for a first down at the Saline 14. The Pioneer drive was sent backwards because of a chop block and then Raupp and Sean O’Keefe sacked Kunek on the last play of the quarter. On the first play of the fourth, Kunec found a received wide open in the middle of the secondary for a 31-yard gain to the Saline 5. A couple plays later, Simmons rushed in for a three-yard touchdown. Pioneer led 23-20 with 10:50 to play.
Things started to look bad for Saline on the next drive when Jackson’s pass for Zach Schwartzenberger was picked off by Benton at the Pioneer 25. Simmons gained three yards on first down, but the Pioneers were penalized for a false start on the next play. On 2nd-and-12, Zachary Owings and Tyler Plocki stopped Kunec for a short gain. On 3rd-and-10, Raupp stopped the Pioneer runner for a three-yard loss. The Pioneers punted with 7:12 to play.
Raupp said he knew if the defense could hold the Pioneers off, the Saline offense would come through.
“I had all the faith in the world. I know if we hold out long enough they’ll pull through. We’ve got a great O-Line and playmakers,” Raupp said.
Zachary Owings called for a fair catch at the Saline 43. After a three-yard run by Hibbard on first down, it looked like the Hornets had a big gain on second, but it was called back for holding. Saline faced a 2nd-and-18 from its 35. Jackson dumped a short pass off to Jeb Palka, who made a couple of great cuts back to the middle. He was finally taken down at the Pioneer 40. Hibbard gained three yards and then it was Jackson’s turn for a clutch, spectacular run. He hit the sideline and then spun out of a tackle toward the middle for a 16-yard gain. Hibbard followed with a six yard gain to the 15 and Palka with a three yard gain to the 12. From there, Hibbard rushed in for a 12-yard touchdown. Breen’s kick was good and Saline led 27-23 with 3:06 to play.
“Players make plays. It’s not all coaching. You saw our best players step up when we needed it most,” Palka said.
Jackson said the Hornets refused to lose.
“I told the team, ‘we’re not losing tonight,’” Jackson said. “My thought process was: We’re not losing. We’re going to do whatever it takes to get the W.”
Saline still needed a defensive stop to clinch the district trophy. The Pioneers started at their 23 and moved the chains with a 3rd-and-5 pass to Benton. Two plays later a pass to Cory Frenette moved the Pioneers to midfield. On 4th-and-4, Kunec passed to Benton for another first down at the Saline 33. It was there the Hornets drew the line in the sand.
On first down, Raupp stopped the scrambling Kunec for no gain. On second down, and end zone try was batted away by Cal Livesay. On third down, under pressure, Kunec’s pass was too high for his receiver. On fourth down, Raupp led a gang of Hornets who sacked Kunec end the Pioneer threat.
The fire breathing Raupp was nearly unstoppable down the stretch.
“I was just playing ever play like it was my last. I didn’t want this to be the last game I ever played, so I was playing my heart out,” Raupp said.
Saline has advanced to the final eight, where they’re play Canton in the regional championship for the second straight year. Last year, Saline defeated a run-crazy Canton team, 42-35, to advance to the semifinals.
A&H Lawn Service Saline Football 3 Stars
- John Raupp -- The fire breathing defensive end terrorized John Kunec all night long. He was credited for 13 tackles and three sacks. An awful lot of those tackles were at crucial moments.
- Josh Jackson -- Saline's start QB found his touch after an off-week vs Monroe. He threw for 200 yards and could have easily had another 100-150 yards and a couple TD passes with a few breaks. Jackson really showed his mettle on a couple tough first-down runs on second-half scoring drives.
- Alex Bromley -- The senior captain and the unsung O-Line did a good job protecting Jackson and opening holes for the Saline runners, who gained 4.7 yards a carry. The O-Line gave up just one sack and protected Jackson from some of the hard hits he received in earlier games.