Saline threw everything they had at Cass Tech and came up a point short, 43-42, in the regional championship football between two 11-0 teams at Saline High School Friday.
Connor Hibbard rushed 24 times for 216 yards and five touchdowns to put an exclamation mark on his Saline High School football career. Zach Schwartzenberger (17-89 yards, 1 TD, 12-for-20 passing, 90 yards) also finished off his career with a big game.
But while Robbie Felton and the Hornet secondary mostly shutdown star receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, the Saline defense couldn’t stop Cass Tech’s rushing attack. Donovan Johnson rushed 13 times for 278 yards and four touchdowns. QB Rodney Hall rushed 15 times for 108 yards and two TDs.
The two teams kept smashing each other with big play after big play.
Cass Tech went ahead for good in the fourth quarter when, after Hall’s three-yard touchdown run, Cass Tech elected to go for two points. Hall hit Peoples-Jones on a slant in the end zone Cass Tech led 43-42 with 7:56 to play. On the ensuing drive the Hornets battled out to midfield but on 3rd-and-5, the Technicians dropped Schwartzenberger in the backfield for a six-yard loss. Schwartzenberger’s 4th-and-11 attempt to Bryce Wolma (6 catches, 57 yards) was broken up. The Technicians took over and ran down the clock.
“We threw everything at them and we came up just short. What can you do? We had a tough time with their athleticism, defensively. But we still kept battling and trying to find a way even down to the last few plays,” Saline head coach Joe Palka said. “Our guys far surpassed expectations in my opinion. You look at Cass Tech with all those Division 1 college football recruits and the way they celebrated a one-point victory. Cass Tech is great football team. But they know they just beat a great football team.”
Until Friday, the most anyone had scored on Cass Tech all year was 27 points – and that was on Aug. 26. In Cass Tech’s 11 wins, the smallest margin of victory was 17 points, last week against Dearborn.
For the Hornets, Hibbard was the story of the game. He broke loose and ran away from everyone for big gains. He fought hard for small games.
“Show me the last time someone scored 42 points against Cass Tech? They felt like they couldn’t stop us or they wouldn’t have gone for two points. They couldn’t stop Connor,” Palka said. “The impressive thing about Connor is, that’s a fast defense and fast secondary and he ran right by guys. Cass Tech gets all the hype, and deservedly so, but I told the kids before the game that we’ve got athletes, too. I think we showed that today.”
Another of those athletes is Schwartzenberger. His stats may not have shown it, but he had a strong game, picking up key first downs in the air and on the ground to keep drives moving.
“A lot of plays weren’t there because of their coverage, but Zach found other ways to make plays. His numbers might not show it, but this was probably his finest game. He faced tough competition and when things weren’t there he found ways to get make plays,” Palka said.
After Saline failed to move the ball on its first possession, Cass Tech quickly punched one in the end zone. On Cass Tech’s first offensive play of the game, Hall bobbled the snap, picked up, ran around to the Cass Tech sideline and went all the way for a 55 yard touchdown.
Saline responded less than three minutes later with a seven-play, 77-yard drive. A run by Hibbard and two passes to Wolma moved Saline to midfield. Hibbard rushed three more times for a first down at the Cass Tech 40.
On the next play Schwartzenberger faked the hand-off to Hibbard and then ran up the middle for the touchdown. JT Turner’s kick was good and the score was 7-7.
Saline’s defense stopped Cass Tech on its next possession. The Technicians reached the Saline 40 after an 18-yard run by Johnson. Tyler Plocki wrapped up Hall on the next play and Dylan Powers dropped Jaylen Powell for a one-yard loss on the next play. On third down, Felton made sure Peoples-Jones was too well covered to catch a pass. A false-start penalty moved Cass Tech back five yards. On 4th-and-13, the snap went over the punter’s head and Phillip Barnett and Ethan Collick dropped him for a big loss.
Saline took over at the Cass Tech 44. Cole Daniels and Schwartzenberger worked the double pass for a 12-yard gain. The next three plays went nowhere.
On 4th-and-10, Schwartzenberger passed to Emmett Turner for a first down.
After a short run by Hibbard, Schwartzenberger passed to Wolma, who fought his way down to the one. On the next play, Hibbard rushed in. Saline led 14-7 after Turner’s kick.
It look a little more than a minute for Cass Tech to answer. On first down, Hall passed to People-Jones for 14 yards. On second down, Johnson rushed 19 yards to the Saline 47. On the next play, Johnson went 47 yards for a touchdown. The game was tied at 14.
The points were coming fast and furious now. Saline went 86 yards in 1:28 to regain the lead. Schwartzenberger ran for a 14-yard gain. Schwartzenberger passed to Wolma for a 12-yard pickup.
Hibbard followed with a 58-yard touchdown run. Saline led 21-14 with 20 seconds left in the quarter.
The Technicians responded with a 6-play, 53-yard drive that included a 4th-and-4 first-down run by Jaren Mangham and ended in a seven-yard touchdown run by Johnson to tie the game at 21.
Saline’s next drive ended with a punt after Schwartzenberger was sacked on third down. Saline’s defense responded by stopping the Technicians. Felton stopped Peoples-Jones after a six-yard pick up on a second down pass. On third down Ethan Collick stopped Hall for no gain. On fourth down Donovan attempted a fake punt but was dropped for a three-yard loss by Collick and Barnett. Saline took over at the Cass Tech 31.
Two plays later, Hibbard broke loose for a 31-yard touchdown. Saline led 28-21.
It took 18 seconds for Cass Tech to tie the score. After Vinnie Patteri’s touchback, Johnson took the handoff at the 20 and went 80 yards for the touchdown.
Scoring was a little lighter in the second half but it didn’t start that way. On the first play from scrimmage, Johnson ran for a 71-yard touchdown and Cass Tech led 35-28.
“Even when we had guys in good position they still outran us,” Palka said, explaining the Hornets’ inability to stop the Cass Tech offense.
Saline replied with 15-play, 72-yard scoring drive. It wasn’t easy. On 4th-and-4, Schwartzenberger passed to Cole Daniels keep the drive going. After Schwartzenberger was sacked, Saline faced a 3rd-and-13. Schwartzenberger rolled out to pass, found nobody open and then ran up the middle for 12 yards. On 4th-and-1, Schwartzenberger handed off to Daniels who looked pass but then dove for the first and got it by inches.
On the next play, Hibbard ran a sweep and scored as he dove over the end zone pylon. The game was tied at 35.
Saline got the ball back when Collick picked up Patteri’s onside kick. Saline and the crowd celebrated. But then Cass Tech and its fans celebrated when the officials ruled it was Cass Tech ball. Finally, the officials ruled it Saline ball at the Cass Tech 49.
Nine plays and nearly four minutes later, Hibbard rushed in for a one-yard touchdown. Saline led 42-35 with 1:48 left in the quarter.
Cass Tech’s next drive began at its 47. On the eighth play of the drive, Hall ran in from three yards. Instead of kicking the extra point, Cass Tech went for two. Hall hit Peoples-Jones running a slant in the end zone. Cass Tech led 43-42.
It was a risky move that paid off because Cass Tech shut down Saline’s next drive. The Hornets started at their 26. Hibbard rushed for 12 yards on first. After a pass to Andrew Diuble, Hibbard picked up another first down on a screen pass where he broke a tackle several yards behind scrimmage. Saline was at midfield. Schwartzenberger ran for four yards on first down and Hibbard added a yard on second. On third down, Schwartzenberger rolled out to his left to pass but found nobody there. He turned to run up field and was met by a blitzing linebacker. On 4th-and-11, Palka called timeout. When play resumed, the Hornets tried to catch Cass Tech off-guard with a quick snap, but Cass Tech called timeout. The Hornets went for it on 4th-and-11.
“We had to score there, obviously, and we tried to get it in the hands of our best receiver,” Palka said.
Schwartzenberger threw one up for Wolma but Willie Reid got a hand on it and knocked it down.
Cass Tech ran down the clock to win the regional and advance to the semifinal against 12-0 Eisenhower..
It was a heartbreaking moment for a Hornet team that managed to find a way to win all year long.
“Our guys gave it everything they had and this game could have easily went the other way. It just didn’t didn’t go our way in the end,” Palka said.
The loss doesn’t tarnish what was a great season.
“Starting back in camp we were thinking about how we could get six wins and get in the playoffs. Next thing you know we’ve got a couple of wins in close games and the team starts believing in itself,” Palka said. “I challenged the team to write their own legacy and not live off of past teams. And they did that.”
Saline finished with and 11-1 record, an SEC championship and district championship. The 11 wins are the second most in program history.
Mancino’s Pizza & Grinders 3 Stars
- Connor Hibbard – Playing against big-time athletes who’ll one day play for D1 college teams, Hibbard had the game of his career. He finished the season with a school record 32 touchdowns. He has a school record 46 career touchdowns.
- Zach Schwartzenberger – His numbers weren’t out-of-this-word, but Schwartzenberger earned some tough and clutch first downs. He found ways to keep the offense moving against a defense loaded with athletes.
- Ethan Collick – On a night when the defense struggled to make plays, Collick made a couple big ones, including a fourth down stop and a recovered onside kick.