If you told anyone before the game Saline would hold Canton to 27 points, chances are they would have told you the Hornets would be regional champs. The Chiefs, known for their offense, shut down the high-octane Hornet attack, and won the game, 27-7, to win the regional at Hornet Stadium and advance to the semifinal.
Saline finished the season with a 10-1 record, the SEC Red championship and a district championship.
Markus Sanders rushed for 193 yards and Canton outgained Saline, 418 to 130 yards. All four Canton touchdowns were on the ground, where Canton gained 381 yards. Josh Jackson threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Mike Monahan for Saline’s touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
After the game Saline coach Joe Palka said he was proud of the way his team, which lacked the athleticism of last year’s state finalist, lived up to incredible expectations.
“This team over-achieved. We were not as physically talented as we were a year ago. We had the bullseye on our back from the start of the year,” Palka said. “They showed a lot of mental toughness and achieved far more than our staff’s expectation, regardless of what the outside public thought.”
Speaking to the team after the season, Palka listed the accomplishments: The undefeated regular season, the conference title, the district championship. He told the team that no one could ever take those accomplishments away.
“We were squarely under pressure from day one, from the first week of August when we were picked number one. I was so proud of the way our guys kept answering the bell, week-in, week-out, and against physical teams in the playoffs,” Palka said. “We had a bad game. Today wasn’t the right game to have it.”
Last year’s Hornet team came from behind and then held on to beat the Chiefs, 42-35. Prior to the game, Palka said he thought the Hornets needed to take away the inside running game from the deceptive Chiefs. Saline mostly shut down the inside run early, but Canton found success running on the outside. As the game went on, with the Hornet offense unable to sustain drives, the Chiefs began to wear down the Saline defense.
“They did a good job of bouncing things wide today. I felt early on we did a good job of stopping the trap,” Palka said.
Everyone expected Canton to gain yards and put up points. But few expected the Hornet offense would struggle. The seven points put up by Saline is the team’s lowest output since a 7-6 regular season loss to Pioneer in 2012.
“They kept our offense off the field. When we did have chances we didn’t covert,” Palka said. “They just loaded up the box and played man coverage.”
It was a promising start for Saline. Defensive tackle Justin Shelton picked up a fumble to end Canton’s first drive.
Saline couldn't capitalize and went three-and-out.
Canton’s next drive started at its 33. They made it out to midfield. John Raupp had stopped big Jared Wickens on third-and-7 and the Hornets got the ball back. Saline took over at their 34. Jackson’s first down pass to Jeb Palka went for a seven yard loss. Saline went three-and-out and Breen punted from the 27. It was a good one. Canton took over at its 28. The Hornet defense gave up very little. On 3rd-and-9, John Raupp and CJ Gildersleeve made the tackle and Canton punted from its 32.
The punt seemed to get caught in the wind and returned Stevie Kise dove to catch the ball, which he muffed. Canton recovered at the Saline 45. Canton opened its drive Jake O’Donnell’s 17-yard pass to Jared Stephens.
On 2nd-and-7 from the 25, Stephens hit the outside for a 24-yard gain. Two plays later, O’Donnell scored on a one-yard keeper. Canton led 7-0 with 19 seconds to play in the quarter.
The ensuing kickoff bounced out of bounds. Canton lined up and did it again. The short kick was fielded by Zach Schwartzenberger, who returned it to the Canton 49. Jackson passed to Palka for an eight-yard pickup. A second-town pass to Schwartzenberger failed to click. Jackson started the second quarter by rushing to convert a 3rd-and-2, the first time the Hornets moved the chains. But the drive stalled there. On 4th-and-4, Ali Mashour stopped Jackson and the Hornets turned the ball over on downs.
Canton took over at the 32 and moved methodically up the field on a 15-play drive. Late in the drive, Saline jumped offside on 4th-and-2 from the three. Wickens rushed in from a yard-and-a-half out. Canton led 14-0 after a drive that consumed most of the second quarter.
Things nearly took a turn for the worse for the when Jackson was intercepted by Stephens on the next possession. Canton took over at the Saline 40, but the Hornet defense held its ground.
On 4th-and-4 from the 34, Raupp delivered the pressure and Zachary Owings picked off a pass and Saline took over at its 14.
The Hornets put the ball in the hands of Connor Hibbard. He had rushes of 17 and 13 yards to move the ball out to midfield.
It looked like the Hornets might have a shot at the end zone when a scrambling Jackson eluded his tacklers and then rushed for a 34-yard pick up, going out of bounds at the 20 with three seconds left. The play was called back because of holding.
Jackson was hit hard and chased out of bounds on the final play of the half.
Kise opened the second half with a good kickoff return. Saline started at its 30 and went with the running game. Hibbard gained 12 yards. And then, on 4th-and-2, Hibbard ran for seven yards. But the drive sputtered out. A 4th-and-3 pass was deflected away from the receiver. Canton took over at its 36 with 8:01 to play in the quarter. The Chiefs put together a 13-play drive and Lou Baechler scored a one-yard touchdown as the third quarter expired. The Chiefs were penalized after the touchdown and the long extra point kick was blocked by Joey Salowich.
Stevie Kise turned the kickoff to the 40. Passes to Palka and Bryce Wolma moved the ball out to the Canton 38.
On the next play, Jackson spied Mike Monahan all alone and passed to him at the one yard line. Monahan caught the ball and spun back into the end zone. Breen kicked the extra point.
Saline was down 20-7 after a 35-second scoring drive.
Everyone in the house knew the Hornets would try the onside kick. Breen booted a short by lofty kickoff along the Saline sideline. The Hornets came close, but Canton had the ball.
The Hornets needed a stop. But by now the defense was weary. On 3rd-and-5, Sanders took off for a 59 yard gain. Seven plays later, Stephens rushed in for a nine-yard touchdown. Canton led 27-8 with 6:13 to play.
That was all she wrote for the Hornets in 2015.
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- CJ Gildersleeve – Like many Hornets, he was playing banged up. Gildersleeve was a force, especially in the first half when the Saline defense looked so stout. He made 14 tackles. He played big and he played tough. And he’s one reason why the future continues to look so good for the Hornets.
- Zachary Owings – The speedy, athletic senior made nine tackles and picked off a pass in his final game at Hornet Stadium.
- Connor Hibbard – Rushed the ball six times for 54 yards and four first downs. Hibbard finished off a terrific junior year and should continue to do great things as a senior.