The high school football season ended at Ford Field over the weekend, with Detroit Cass Tech defeating Detroit Catholic Central, 36-21, to win the Division 1 state championship.
You may recall that Saline fell to Cass Tech 21-14 a couple weeks ago in a game where the Hornets had a chance to tie it in the game’s final minute.
I’ve been guilty of underestimating Hornet football all year. So it’s worth repeating. Saline gave the two-time defending state champs one hell of a test – perhaps the best of the playoffs. As Cass Tech defensive coordinator Jermaine Crowell tweeted about the Hornets: “The most heart I’ve seen in years! They were a great team, they gave us everything we could handle and then some.”
I’ve been wondering how and what to write about the Hornets’ season, as I’ve had a few storylines running through my head all year.
First, I want to say this. I underestimated everything about Joe Palka and the Hornets from the first day talked to the new coach last winter.
I’m not a football guy and I didn’t think much of high school sports until covering the Blissfield High School football team coached by Ron Estes. They weren’t just building football players in Blissfield. They were building leaders and strong young men who believed their mental toughness could carry them through whatever obstacle was put in their way. It was fascinating to watch. Despite what I saw from other small school coaches who marched up and down the sideline, berating kids for mistakes and making fools of themselves, I gained a new respect for high school football and football coaches.
After the school board meeting where Palka was introduced, I spoke briefly with him. I told him about the successful program I had seen and questioned whether it could be recreated at Saline. Truthfully, I doubted whether a coach could engage and push students enough at Saline. Not because the kids aren’t tough enough. But because to push kids that hard, you’ve got to have to have buy-in from the kids and their parents. Down in the cornfields of Blissfield, you listen to your football coach. When push came to shove in Saline, were parents going to tell their kids to button up and listen to coach? I had my doubts.
That was the first time I underestimated both Palka and Hornets football team, and it wasn’t the last.
On opening night, after Saline stunned Michigan high school football aficionados with a 27-14 victory at Walled Lake Western, senior Caleb Ashby proclaimed the Hornets were headed to Ford Field to compete for the state championship. It was easy to brush off the words of Ashby, the ferocious linebacker who was the heart of the Saline defense, as the exuberant boasts of a football player who was just happy to playing and winning after missing all of his junior year with an injury. While the victory was impressive, I figured some of it was due to Walled Lake Western not being the same juggernaut that won 51-14 in a dominating performance the previous year. (It wasn’t until I saw Walled Lake Western in its own regional that I changed my mind.)
In week three, the Hornets beat up Adrian, 58-20. Of course, people said, Adrian was having a down year. And when Saline finally did lose, 7-6 to Pioneer, it felt a little like the bubble had burst and maybe reality had set in.
But the Hornets had other ideas. They went on the road to beat Monroe and Bedford and suddenly they were in line for a league title and 8-1 record.
After beating Novi 42-7 to close the season, Ashby was informed his week one prediction was brushed off as bravado. He shook his head in disbelief.
“No, we always believed. We believed from day one,” Ashby said.
Day one, Ashby said, was the day last winter when he met Palka, who’d been brought into from Toledo Whitmer, where he turned his football program into an Ohio powerhouse. Palka’s hiring ruffled feathers, as the school district reshuffled its high school administrative staff to make Palka assistant principal and assistant athletic director.
In Palka’s first meeting with the team, Palka told the Hornets they could be champions.
“He said, ‘if you’re going to work, we have the talent, we have the heart,’” Ashby said.
Like Ashby, senior Casey 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.
In high school sports, a well-coached team that believes in itself can make up for athletic shortcomings it might have. A team that believes in itself can play with the kind of confidence that allowed Saline’s defense to come up with five turnovers against Pioneer, or to comeback in the second half against Bedford, or to make a late charge against Cass Tech.
“You have to give credit to our kids. They believed and bought in. And it took a lot of hard coaching 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.”
That physical and mental toughness kept the Hornets in games against faster and bigger teams. Physical and mental toughness doesn’t grow on trees. It comes from hard work. Off-season workouts are more rigorous. Practices are regimented and sophisticated. Saline has one of the largest assistant coaching staffs you’ll see in high school football and kids are able to learn with the kind of attention to detail not afforded most high school teams.
Athletic Director Rob White said he didn’t expect the football program to take off as quickly as it did. But, he too, may have underestimated Palka a little bit.
“Joe has instant credibility with the kids. He knows the kids want to be challenged and he challenges them,” White said.
And that’s why you can have an offensive line filled with 5’10 kids playing like they’re 6’4.
If you listened to Joe Palka, or Tyler Palka, or Gage Hammond or Schukow or Ashby all year, they never talked about stats. They rarely talked about winning or losing. Most of the year, they talked about being better today than they were yesterday, and being better tomorrow than they are today. And they didn’t just talk about it. They said it with conviction. Then they went out there and did it, week after week.
That’s a lesson these Hornets can carry with them for life.
And a word of advice: Don't underestimate anyone with that kind of attitude.