Coach Joe Palka and the Saline football team pulled out all the stops to defeat Canton, 37-31, Friday at Saline High School. The win gave Saline its third straight district championship. Saline (11-0) hosts Cass Tech (11-0) in the regional championship Friday at Saline High School.
With the help of an onside kick recovery, Saline bounced back from a 10-0 second quarter deficit and used a brilliant fake punt to set up a back-breaking touchdown mid-way through the fourth quarter.
In a back-and-forth, Saline led 27-24 with nine minutes left to play when it looked like Canton forced a turnover on downs.
On 4th-and-10 from the Saline 37, the Hornets lined up to punt. Instead, the center snapped to Connor Hibbard, who swept to the outside and then bounced back inside before he was dragged down at the 15-yard line. A couple plays later, QB Zach Schwartzenberger scored on a seven-yard keeper. Saline led 34-24.
Saline coach Joe Palka explained the gutsy decision.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in Connor. He’s not going to be easy to bring down even if they have numbers. I felt all along that we were going to have to steal possessions like we have to every year against these guys. We had the look that I wanted there, so we went for it,” Palka said.
It was a risky call, but Palka said he felt it was the right time.
“I sold our kids on the idea that we were going to let it all hang out tonight to win, and I can’t go back on that,” Palka said. “If it didn’t work, I look like an idiot. But I felt safe doing that. Put the ball in the hands of your best players and that’s what we did.”
Hibbard, who rushed 18 times for 179 yards and a touchdown, was ready for the call.
“I was really excited for it. We run it in practice all the time. We did it earlier in the season and it’s one of my favorite plays,” Hibbard said. “I was not nervous. The coaches trusted us with that play and it’s a great play.”
Beating Canton, who ended Saline’s run in the regional last year, was no small feat.
“Let’s be honest. This was a hard-earned district championship. With Canton in our district, this was damned hard and difficult to get done and I was proud of our guys for doing it,” Palka said.
The game began with Saline kicking off to Marcus Sanders, who went 44 yards before he was brought down at midfield by Robbie Felton. Running exclusively, Canton moved the chains a couple times and had a first at the Saline 20. That’s where the Hornet defense pushed back. Tyler Plocki (6.5 tackles) stopped Sanders after a two-yard gain. Plocki and CJ Gilderlseeve (9.5 tackles, one tackle for a loss) stopped Julian Thornton after a three yard pick up. And then the Hornet defense stopped Jake O’Donnell after a one yard gain on third down. Ben Tubaro entered the game and kicked a 31-yard field goal. Canton led 3-0.
Palka was pleased that the Saline limited to Canton to just three points after they started with such great field position.
Hibbard returned the next kickoff 40 yards to the Saline 42. After a nine-yard pick up on a catch by Bryce Wolma on first down, the drive stalled and Saline punted. Vinnie Patteri’s 47-yard punt rolled down the Canton eight. After Saline nearly stopped Canton on a 3rd’-and-4, the Chiefs put together an impressive scoring drive. They went 92 yards on 14 plays. Jake O’Donnell passed to Sanders for a nine-yard touchdown. Canton led 10-0 1:45 into the second quarter.
The Hornet offense responded.
On first down, Schwartzenberger (9-for-16, 174 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) handed to Cole Daniels and then sped toward the sideline. Daniels passed back to Schwartzenberger as he sprinted down the sideline. By the time he was pushed out of bounds, he’d picked up 67 yards.
Two plays later, Schwartzenberger passed to Bryce Wolma (5 catches, 102 yards, 2 TDs), who made the catch between two Chiefs in the end zone. JT Turner’s kick made it 10-7.
Wolma, who had one of his best games of the year, said his team wasn’t worried.
“This team, more than any team I’ve been on the last three years, has fought through adversity throughout. The Skyline game, the Bedford game – I think they really helped us out in this one,” Wolma said.
Wolma’s touchdown got Saline on the board with 9:16 to play in the second.
Less than 20 seconds later, the Hornets were celebrating again. Ethan Collick won the battle for Patteri’s onside kick and the Hornets started at the Canton 47.
“We were down 10-7 and we wanted to seize momentum. Our kids are good at that. We work hard every day in practice,” Palka said. “We felt we could get it. It was a scramble and we came up with it. Players make plays. Give credit to the kids.”
After an incomplete pass, Hibbard found a big hole and was off to the races for a 47-yard touchdown. The Hornets led 14-10 after Turner’s kick.
While Saline seized the lead, Canton wasn’t ready to give up the momentum. The Chiefs started their next drive at the 20. On third and 2 from the 38, Thornton slipped a tackle and ran 62 yards for a touchdown. Canton led 17-14 with 6:44 to play in the half. The next Saline drive was rough. The Hornets took two penalties and Schwartzenberger was dropped for a sack at the Saline seven. Patteri punted from the end zone and Canton took over at the Saline 41. The Chiefs gained a first down at the Saline 19. After stops by Gildersleeve and Nathan Powers on the first two downs, O’Donnell rolled out and passed into the end zone, where Robbie Felton (6.5 tackles, 1 interception) caught the ball for an interception.
“I saw the tight end release on a fade. I just stayed in my zone, stayed disciplined. I saw the ball in the air and just went and got it,” Felton said. “It was a big stop. It kept us from getting discouraged and kept us in the game.”
Instead of being down 24-14, the Hornets had the ball at their 20 yard line with 39 seconds left.
“Robbie made a great play. It was a huge stop. We knew every point would be critical and that’s where our defense came up big,” Palka said.
After an incomplete pass, Hibbard rushed for 14 yards.
Two plays later, Schwartzenberger tossed one up for Emmett Turner, who somehow reached over the defensive back in front of him and caught the ball. Saline had a first down at the Canton 20 with four seconds left.
JT Turner entered the game and kicked a 37-yard field goal, his first of three on the night, to tie the game at 17.
The Chiefs kicked off to Saline to start the second half.
After picking up 17 yards on a few plays, Schwartzenberger passed to Wolma up the middle. Wolma caught the ball on the run, then zigzagged between the Canton defensive backs for a 63-yard touchdown. Saline led 24-17.
The Chiefs kept coming. Julian Thornton returned the kickoff to the Saline four-yard line. Felton, Justice Moss (four tackles) and Plocki made stops on the first three downs, but Thornton punched it in on 4th-and-goal from the one. The game was tied at 24.
Saline’s next drive was promising, but after moving the chains down to the 16, the Hornets lost three yards recovering a fumble and then lost 10 more on a holding call.
JT Turner stepped in and kicked a 35-yard field goal that had just enough to sail through the uprights. Saline led 27-24.
On Canton’s next drive, Saline’s defense forced its first three-and-out of the game. On first down, Nathan Powers (five tackles) stopped Thornton for no gain. Tyler Plocki broke up a third-and-7 pass attempt. The Chiefs punted and Saline took over at its 36.
It looked like Saline might be headed for a 3-and-out after another penalty and an incomplete pass on third down.
But on fourth down, Hibbard picked up 48 yards on the fake punt.
A couple plays later, the Hornets were celebrating in the end zone when Schwartzenberger ran in from seven yards. Saline led 34-24 with 7:22 to play.
The Saline defense came up big again on the next Canton drive. Felton made one stop. A desperate fourth-and-5 passing attempt was broken up by Plocki.
The Hornets couldn’t turn the great field position into a touchdown, but JT Turner kicked a 33-yard field goal. Saline led 37-24.
The Chiefs weren’t quite done. A long drive ended with a five yard touchdown pass to Reid McDonnell. Canton got within six. But the onside kick attempt went out of bounds. Saline took over with 1:20 to play and after another first down run by Hibbard, they watched the time fall off the clock.
Palka said that his Hornets have come a long way since the start of the season. The Hornets, at 11-0, have won the SEC Red and the district championship.
“Early in the year when things looked a little dicey I felt maybe this team was living off the legacy of past teams. I told the kids they need to build their own legacy. Today I reminded them of that comment. This team has built its own legacy. I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Palka said.
Next week, the Hornets look to add to their legacy when they host Cass Tech for the regional championship game and a chance to go to the final four. These two teams have split two epic playoff battles during Palka era.
“Cass Tech will be fired up to play us and that’s a sign we’re arriving as a program. They’re not going to overlook us,” Palka said. “For our guys, we’re happy to keep playing and getting one week better. No challenge is too big for our guys. We’re looking forward to the challenge next week.”
Mancino's Pizza & Grinders 3 Stars
- Bryce Wolma – Saline’s big name player is deliver the big games when it counts the most.
- Connor Hibbard – The human highlight reel delivered brought fans out of their seats on the clutch fake punt and on his long touchdown run.
- Zach Schwartzenberger – Despite taking a couple big hits, Schwartzenberger hung in and there and delivered two touchdown passes, ran for another and caught another.