After the week one victory at Walled Lake Western, senior Caleb Ashby boldly declared the Saline Hornets were going to the state finals. At the time Ashby’s declaration might have seemed like bravado to some. But he believed it. And now, after completing an 8-1 season (in which the only loss was by a single point), it doesn’t seem like such an outlandish idea.
Ashby said the Hornets’ new head coach Joe Palka instilled the belief in the team, which was coming off a 4-and-5 season.
When did Palka introduce Ashby to the idea that the Hornets could win a state championship?
“The first time I ever met him,” Ashby said. “I was surprised because I’ve never heard a coach just outright say it.”
Ashby said Palka made it easy to buy into it.
“He said, ‘if you’re going to work, we have the talent, we have the heart,’” Ashby said.
Palka came to Saline from northwest Ohio, where he turned Toledo Whitmer into a football powerhouse.
“You have to give credit to our kids. They believed and bought in. And it took a lot of hard coach to do that. Our staff has done a great job molding together, and I think we’ve gotten kids to do even more than they thought they could do,” Palka said. “The other thing that I like is that we’ve become a mentally and physically tough team. When we got here, I think those were some of the biggest challenges we had. We’re not there 100 percent yet, but we’re on the right track.”
Palka said he was satisfied with the team’s off-season work ethic. There were challenges when the team hit the practice field to learn the new schemes.
“It’s difficult. This is the most tired I’ve ever been in a coaching job. It takes a lot of energy to start a new program,” Palka said.
Along the way, the Hornets have found ways to rise to the occasion during the most crucial games.
Saline opened the season at Walled Lake Western. In 2011, Walled Lake Western had its way with Saline, winning 51-14. So Saline’s season opening 27-14 win was an early payoff for the new program.
“They could see rewards from their hard work,” Palka said.
The test of the team’s confidence came after Saline’s 7-6 loss at home to Pioneer. Suddenly, that sterling 3-0 record was 3-1 and Saline was heading out on the road to play tough SEC Red rivals Bedford and Monroe. Saline hadn’t beat Bedford since 2007 and had never beaten Monroe. The season easily could have taken a turn for the worse. Instead, Saline proved its mettle with two tough wins and they haven’t been tested since.
“Our response to the Pioneer game was critical. After that game, we asked ourselves where we were going to be five weeks from now,” Palka said.
Friday night, after Saline’s 42-7 win over Novi, the Hornets have their answer.
The season easily could have taken a turn for the worse. Instead, the Hornets proved their mettle with two tough wins. They haven’t been tested since. Saline will get at least one playoff home game and maybe more.
Few members of the Hornets have experienced playoff football. Defensive lineman Casey Schukow was a sophomore when the Hornets fell to Plymouth 27-7 in 2010. He’s thrilled to be going into the playoffs having finished an 8-1 regular season.
“Words can’t even describe it,” said Casey Schukow.“We’ve worked endless hours. We pushed ourselves and pushed each other and this is honestly one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”
Schukow credited the coaching staff for pushing the players.
“A big thing is that we are competing every day in the field so the competition is just great on Friday night,” Schukow said.
Like Ashby, Schukow said Saline’s players sensed something different about Hornet football when Palka took over.
“Day one. As soon as coach Palka came in and addressed the team, I think the following day we were in the weight room starting our journey to get better. From then on I knew this was something to be reckoned with,” Schukow said.
What does Casey Schukow want to see next week?
“I want to see victory. I want everyone to see victory. This is just the beginning,” Schukow said. “But it’s just another week. We’ve been treating every week as a playoff week and as a week to get better. And that’s what we look forward to. We’re going to find a way to get better and find a way to win.”
This time last year, Ashby and the juniors on the team were saying goodbye to the seniors after a disappointing loss on a frigid night in Novi crushed Saline’s slim chance at a playoff berth.
“I’m glad I’m not saying goodbye in week nine. I just want to keep going and I don’t want it to stop until we’re celebrating on Ford Field,” Ashby said