Pundits and scholars are debating whether a blue wave swept America in last week’s midterm elections. But there is no debating this: A blue and gold tsunami is washing away all that stands in its path in the MHSAA Division 1 football play.
Saline’s defense turned in a performance for the ages as Saline bested Rockford, 13-12, in overtime, to win the regional championship and advance to the final four. Saline (11-1) plays Clarkston (9-2) in the semifinal at 1 p.m., Saturday, at Okemos High School. The winner will advance to Ford Field to play either Chippewa Valley (12-0) or Belleville (12-0).
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The Hornets stormed the field in celebration when a swarm of Hornets stopped Rockford running back Jaiden Friesen as the Rams, down 13-12, risked losing to go for the win with a two-point conversion.
It was a joyous moment of triumph after an epic, grueling defensive struggle.
“It's just an unbelievable feeling. I don't think I've ever been part of a win like that,” Coach Joe Palka said. “To win it on stopping them from the one and half yard line. It doesn't get any more dramatic than that. For a regional championship. We've had some big wins and big times, but to win a big game, in dramatic fashion with such high stakes, it's incredible.”
Senior MJ Griffin, who rushed for Saline’s touchdown in overtime, described the moment when the official whistled the play dead.
“I felt like I was about to cry when I found out we stopped them. I feel really good right now. I'm just happy that we actually stopped them and we actually won the game,’ Griffin said.
Senior Connor Terech has been a starter since his sophomore year.
“This might be the happiest I've been, playing the sport,” Terech said. “When they said it was no good, I got chills. I've never been that happy.”
Noah Nelson, who helped send the game to overtime by blocking an extra point kick attempt in the fourth quarter, said it was an unforgettable moment.
“It was crazy seeing all the fans, throwing stuff. It was crazy. I'll never forget that,” Nelson said.
Brendan Murphy, who set up Saline’s first field goal with a long pass reception, was on the sideline watching the final play.
“All I see is the ref come in and give the big wave and everyone goes crazy. I was speechless. I literally just stood there and gave my coach a hug and I was loving it. It was insane. That is the best moment of my football career so far,” Murphy said.
It’s tough to imagine there’s been a more jubilant moment at Hornet Stadium in this decade.
Saturday’s contest was grinding.
The Hornets struggled to move the ball against a disciplined, speedy Rams’ defense. The Rams got nowhere against a Saline defense that hasn’t given up more than a touchdown since week three.
Saline’s first drive began at its 37 after a 28-yard kickoff return by MJ Griffin. The Hornets pressed into Rams’ territory after a short pass from Andrew Arbaught to MJ Griffin and then a 23-yard run by Brendan Munday. But the Rams sacked Arbaugh on the next play and the drive fizzled. Saline punted from the Rockford 34. Brendan Cropsey’s punt bounced into the end zone.
Rockford seemed determined to demonstrate they were not fearful of Saline’s elite defense. They moved the chains once with a four-yard pick up on 3rd-and-4. Then, after Johan Ashby stopped Richardson for no-gain on 3rd-and-2 from the Rockford 39, the Rams decided to go for it on fourth down.
Monty Green and Terech stuffed Jaiden Friesen for no gain.
The Rams’ confidence play looked foolish at that moment. Saline took over at the Rockford 39. But the Hornets couldn’t make the Rams pay. Munday had rushes of 1 and 3 yards. On 3rd-and-6, the Rams stopped Griffin behind scrimmage. On 4th-and-9, from the Rams’ 38, the Hornets called on Cropsey to punt again.
It was strange seeing a Palka team punt twice inside the 40. But Palka was counting on his defense getting a stop and getting the offense back on the field with good field position.
“We're to a point now where we are playing to our defense. We're down to the 35-yard line and not producing anything, we decide to punt because our defense is playing so well,” said Palka, who came to Saline and quickly developed a reputation for high-octane, big-play offensive teams.
Cropsey’s punt went into the end zone for a touchback. The Hornet forced a 3-and-out. This time, Rockford punted from its 23. Richardson’s punt was downed at Saline’s 42.
The Rams were intent on matching Saline’s defensive performance. On the first play of the second quarter, the Rams sacked Arbaugh and, after an illegal procedure penalty, Saline punted from its 33.
Rockford moved the ball into Saline territory when Drew Bareno passed to Nate Bareno for a 23-yard gain. The Rams got as far as the Saline 40, but on 3rd-and-2, a bad snap cost the Rams 11 yards. They punted from their 13.
Saline threatened on their next drive. Munday ran for five yards on second, four yards on third and gained one-yard on 4th-and-1. A couple plays later, Arbaugh passed to Murphy along the Saline sideline for a 29-yard gain. Saline had a first down at the Rockford 22.
On first down, Griffin gained four ayrds. But from there, the Hornets went backwards. First it was a delay of game penalty. Then Arbaugh was sacked by Reid Nicholson. Saline punted on 4th-and-23 from the Rockford 35.
The two teams retired to their dressing rooms scoreless.
JT Turner kicked off to Rockford to start the second half. The Saline defense limited to Rockford to nine yards on the first three downs. Again, Rockford went for it on 4th-and-1, this time from its 29. This time, they picked up three yards to move the chains. On the next play, Friesen found some room and gained 14 yards on the ground. Three plays later, Richardson picked up two yards for a first down at the Saline 43. The Rams were doing a good job hiding the ball. But it ended there. On first down, Terech stopped Friesen after a two-yard run. A second down pass attempt was incomplete. On third down, Alex Morrison punched the ball out of Cade Klimczak’s hands after his short pass reception. The Rams recovered, but faced a 4th-and-8. The Rams went to the air on fourth down, but Isaac Zambeck had Nate Bareno covered.
The Hornets took over on their 41. On first down, Arbaugh found his favorite target, Murphy over the middle. Murphy bounced to the outside under high pursuit. He dove for the end zone and touched the pylon the ball, but officials ruled he stopped out at the one.
Saline had three chances from the one. The Rams were up for the task, stopping Griffin twice and Munday once. On 4th-and-1, Palka elected to take the points rather than risk a fourth-down stop. JT Turner kicked an 18-yard field goal. Saline was on the board, up 3-0.
Rockford’s next drive began at their 19. Friesen rushed twice for a first down at the 35. The Hornets looked like they had the Rams stopped after a hurried Rockford QB threw way too long on 3rd-and-9 – but Saline was called for pass interference. Rockford had a first down at the Saline 49. After a false start and Brad Wisniewski’s tackle behind scrimmage, Rockford faced 2-and-16. Chris Corey passed to Nate Bareno for a 12-yard pick up. A third down pass fell incomplete. Rockford went for it on 4th-and-4 from the Saline 43.
DE Zach Sabin burst through the line and dragged down Corey for a seven-yard loss, ending the threat and giving Saline good field position.
“Sabin's a guy who's been a staple for us all year. He's the young guy on that (defensive line),” Palka said. “For Sabin to stay patient, get in and make that play on fourth down, that's just kind of what this team is all about: Kids stepping up and making plays at the right time.”
Saline took over at the 50 with 35 seconds left in the quarter.
With Brendan Munday injured, the Hornets moved the ball through the air. Arbaugh passed to Kolton Malinczak and Joel Klomega for a first down at the 29. On first down, Arbaugh passed to Malinczak for seven yards. The Rams grew stingier and forced a 4th-and-2 at the 21.
Palka played cat and mouse with the Rockford coaching staff. First he looked like he was lining up to go for a first down. Then he called timeout. Then JT Turner came out for a field goal. Then he ran back to the sidelines. Finally Arbaugh passed to Griffin, who ran to the 16 for a first down. The drive stalled there.
On 4th-and-12, JT Turner kicked a 35-yard field goal. Saline led 6-0 with 8:52 to play.
It looked like the Hornets might win by a 6-0 score. The Hornets stopped the Rams again on their next possession. They punted from their 42 with 6:13 to play. Saline took over at its 15. This time, the Rams gave up very little. Arbaugh ran for one yard on first and then completed two short passes. On 4th-and-1, Cropsey sent a high punt that was by Jack Richardson near the Rockford sideline. Richardson ran up the sideline (and stepped out of bounds, according to one Hornet) and then bounced to the middle and went all the way for a 60-yard touchdown.
In an instant, the game was turned on its ear.
Rockford lined up for the extra point kick. Last week, MJ Griffin’s blocked field goal came at a critical juncture for the Hornets. Rockford blocked Griffin. But they didn’t stop Noah Nelson.
“We didn't get down. Our defense stayed up and stayed positive. There just happened to be an opening right where I was rushing. I just went up there, put my hands up and the ball tipped off my fingers,” Nelson said, describing the block. “It was crazy. I'll never forget that. It was great feeling.”
It was a huge play. Saline would have been down, 7-6, with 4:26 to play and been under immense pressure to score against a tough defense.
“We're were struggling to move the ball. Munday was out. Murph got banged up. Every point is important,” Palka said. “We block that extra point, it gave us life. That's what the coaches on the headset said. It gave us life.”
Indeed. Instead of returning to the sidelines in a pall of desperation, the Hornets were energized.
Still, the offense struggled to move the football. A false-start penalty on first down didn’t help. A few plays later, Saline punted from its 41. This time, the Hornets limited Richardson to 12 yards before Isaac Zambeck tackled him. Rockford took over at 27. The Rams moved the ball out to their 43, where they had a 4th-and-5 with 41 seconds left. Officials sent them back to their 21 for a chop block. Richardson punted from the Rockford 21. It wasn’t a good punt and Saline took over at the Rockford 36 with 25 seconds left and no time outs.
On first down, Arbaugh passed over the middle for Malinczak, but Ian Rodriguez made a leaping interception. Rockford took over at its 44 with 20 seconds left. Drew Bareno passed to Nate Bareno for a first down at the Saline 27.
The Rams let the clock dwindle to one second and called time out before lining up for a 44-yard field goal attempt, which was wide and short.
The game went to overtime tied at six.
In high school football overtime, teams start at the opposition’s 10-yard line and have four downs to score.
Palka put the ball in the hands of Griffin. On first down, he scrambled to the one yard line.
On second down, he scored. Turner’s kick made it 13-6.
Then it was Rockford’s turn. On first down, Richardson ran for two yards. On second down, a pass fell incomplete. On third down, Richardson took the hand off, rolled out and then passed to Nate Bareno in the end zone.
Saline led 13-12.
Rockford could have kicked for the extra point – but Saline had already blocked one. And Rockford had also missed a long field goal attempt. Instead, they went for two points from 1 ½ yards out.
The Saline defense came up huge in the clutch. It didn’t surprise coach Palka, but it impressed him nonetheless.
“To make a stop like that, what a statement that is by our defense,” Palka said. “In these situations all year, we've made stops.”
Coach Palka and the Hornets have immense confidence in their defense.
“Every point is hard to come by right now. Even going for a field goal in a one possession game, it felt like it was the right thing to do. If you can hang your hat on a defense like that, you're going to be in every game,” Palka said. “We're pulling out close games and we have to defense to thank for that.”
Mancino’s Pizza and Grinders 3 Stars
- Brad Wisniewski – It all starts with the D-Line, and Wisniewski and his group were monsters again Saturday. He made six tackles, including one tackle for a loss. And he helped funnel the running backs right into the arms of Connor Terech and Alex Morrison.
- Connor Terech – The three-year varsity starter was rock solid all game – always in the right place. He made a team-leading nine tackles.
- Noah Nelson – Made three tackles and came up with the block on the extra-point kick that preserved the 6-6 score and allowed Saline to get to overtime.
Honorable mention – JT Turner was 2-for-2 on field goal attempts and one-for-one on extra point attempts. If you want to look at the difference in this game, look no further than kicking (Cropsey had a good day, punting, too.) Brendan Murphy had four catches for 95 yards.