What: Saline (11-2) vs Chippewa Valley (14-0)
When: 7 p.m., Thursday, Xenith Prep Kickoff Classic
Where: Adams Field, Wayne State University
Tickets: $9 (Order online - Ticket grants admission to 4 p.m. game between Brother Rice and Utica Eisenhower)
What’s at Stake: It’s last year’s state champ vs a semi-finalist. Both teams see this as an early season yardstick game.
Past meeting: Last year, Chippewa Valley defeated Saline, 31-26, on opening night.
Watch the Game: MHSAA.tv (subscription)
Twitter: @thesalinepost @salineathletics
Saline begins what its hopes will be a long, winning football season Thursday night against the defending state champs from Chippewa Valley in the primetime Xenith Prep Kickoff Classic at Wayne State University.
Regardless of how they did last year, how many starters return, or how many starters graduate – the goal is always the same: To win the state championship.
State championships are never won in August. But they can tell coach Joe Palka and his team a lot about what it might take to get there.
Last year, for example, most high school football observers saw Saline having “a down year.” But on opening night, they went punch-for-punch against a highly ranked Chippewa Valley team before succumbing, 31-26. It was a sign of things to come. Saline won 11 straight games before losing in the state semifinal.
As a result, the Hornets come into this season with more buzz. More hype. The kinds of things that don’t matter much to Palka and his team.
“We have the same expectations, every year, regardless of outside expectations,” Palka said.
When the team breaks from a post-practice huddle, they chant, “state champs.”
Palka and the Hornets relish the chance to play the defending state champs on opening night.
“We want that tough opener. It’s a great chance to win,” Palka said. “Win or lose, it’s a great opportunity to learn a lot about ourselves. We can start figuring things out early in the season, consistently get better, and hopefully be a real good team at the end of the year.”
Palka views the defense – especially the front seven – as a strength of the team.
The defensive line boasts size, athleticism and experience.
Senior Henry Koenen (6’5, 270) and junior Brett Baldus (6’4, 270) line up at defensive tackle. Koenen made a name for himself as the season developed last year. Baldus saw less action last season. Both big guys will be counted on from game one this year.
On the ends are Zach Sabin (6’2, 235) and Josh Brannan (6’0, 225). Sabin is the most experienced member of the line, making 31.5 tackles and recording four sacks last year. He’s moving to DE this year. Palka also envisions Sabin seeing action on offense at times.
“He’s such an intelligent player who always seems to be the right spot. So far, his transition to defensive end has been seamless,” Palka said.
Brannan was credited with 6.5 tackles last year.
“The defensive line should be a strength. But we’re going to make sure we don’t let teams sustain long drives. This is a bigger group and they could fatigue quicker. And right now, it doesn’t look like we have the same depth on the line,” Palka said.
The linebackers behind them also inspire confidence. Alex Morrison, a three-year starter on varsity, is at inside linebacker. Senior Monty Green (34 tackles, one interception) and athletic junior London Parrish, new to the district, will also start at linebacker.
Morrison (88 tackles, four interceptions) is the leader of the linebacker group, if not the leader of the defense.
“He’s got natural instincts, plus he can run and he’s physical. A lot of times, when other guys miss, he can get there with his speed and make the play,” Palka said. “So far, he’s just picked up where he’s left off.”
Morrison, who committed to play for the Air Force, will also see time on offense.
“Our defense has a chance to be really good – especially with our front seven,” Palka said.
In the secondary, the Hornets have a mixture of speed, experience and youth.
Seniors Noah Nelson (5’8, 165) and JJ Ohren-Hoeft (5’11, 175) are the starting cornerbacks. Nelson (23.5 tackles, 1 sack) is a returning starter who blocked an extra-point to send the regional final game to overtime. Hoeft is a first-year starter.
Senior Kyle Greenwood (5’11, 175) and sophomore Zachary Antell will start at safety. Greenwood (23 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack) is returning starter with all around athletic ability. He could also see snaps at quarterback, receiver and RB. Antell is a youngster who’s being groomed as a future linebacker, starting at safety the way Morrison did as a sophomore.
“Antell is a physical kid with a knack for football,” Palka said.
It’s the day before opening night, and if Joe Palka knows who his starting quarterback will be, he’s not saying.
Junior Anthony Ferrari and sophomore Larry Robinson have spent all summer competing for the job.
“We’ve got one more practice. Both guys have been repping equally with the ones and twos. We plan on playing both this year. But we haven’t decided yet who’s going to start,” Palka said. “We’ll use them in combination until one separates himself.”
Ferrari is 6’2, 190 pounds. He started last year when Andrew Arbaugh was injured in the season-opener. For the season he went 26-of-39 for 289 yards, a TD and two interceptions.
“Andrew’s a year older and has a bit more experience. He has a strong arm and has really good pocket presence. He can step up, hang in there and make throws. He’s a hard runner who will lower the shoulder and can get downhill,” Palka said.
Robinson (5’11, 165) competed four of eight passes for 37 yards. He also ran 13 times for 27 yards.
“Larry’s got a good arm and has good accuracy. He’s better when moving on the run. You can get him outside the pocket a little more. He’s a thread if protection breaks down and the play is extended,” Palka said.
The offensive line will have the most experience at the tackle positions. Senior left tackle Lance Blaszak (6’1, 195) and junior right tackle Kyler Blake Jones (6’4, 240) saw regular action last year. Senior left guard Evan Schunck (6’2, 200) and senior right guard Carter St. Lawrence (6’0, 220) will flank senior center Clay Curtis (5’9, 205).
At running back, senior Cade Gilless (5’11, 180) is expected to start.
“Cade missed a year with injury, so it’s almost like he’s a junior. But he’s been impressive. He’s faster than people think. He can get out to the edges. We like his patience and his ability to find seams,” Palka said.
Junior Gavin Lytle (5’9, 170) was a featured back on junior varsity and will see the ball a lot. As well, you’ll see players like Greenwood, Morrison and Parrish running the ball in some situations.
When the Hornets throw, expect Kolton Malinczak (5’8, 150) to be a prime target. Malinczak, the slot receiver, is a fearless playmaker with good speed and agility. He caught 30 passes for 363 yards and 2 TDs last year. He also had a few great punt returns.
“Kolton has a great amount of quickness and he knows only one speed: as fast and as hard as he can go,” Palka said.
That one speed resulted in injuries that impacted game later in the season, so the Hornets want to keep him healthy.
Nick Patteri missed his entire junior season with injuries. At 6’3, 180, he makes an inviting target along the sidelines. Junior Eric Peoples, at 6’2, 170, lines up at the other outside receiver. Caden Winston, Nathan Holmberg and Nick Dils will also play at receiver.
Without a true tight end, the Hornets will play with an H-back. Junior Chance Bezeau (6’0, 205), Scoop Harden (6’0, 180) and Luke Darmos (6’4, 180) will play there..
Brendan Cropsey, who punted 32 times for an average of 33.6 yards last year, returns as the starting punter and he’ll also handle placekicking duties.
Malinczak and Nelson will handle returns.
Last year, the Hornets lost to Mount Clemens Chippewa Valley in opening day in Saline, 31-26. Chippewa Valley went on to a 14-0 season, defeating Clarkston, 31-30 in the state championship game. Until the Clarkston game, the opening day contest was the Big Reds’ closest game.
The Big Reds return eight starters from last year’s team. Receiver Josh Kulka has moved to QB. RB Myren Harris, 5’10 and 210 pounds, rushed 16 times for 105 yards against Saline last year. His twin brother, Myles, starts at safety and can make big plays at receiver.
Palka Era – Year 8
Joe Palka begins his eighth year as coach of the Hornets. Last year was Palka’s second trip to the MHSAA Division 1 final four at Saline. The Hornets reached the state championship in 2014.
Through seven years, Palka has a record of 70-12. Saline has six SEC Red titles, five district trophies and two regional trophies in seven seasons.
The Hornets have posted winning seasons for seven straight seasons. It’s their longest streak since 1992-99, when Saline recorded eight straight winning seasons. From 1972-86, the Hornets posted 15 straight winning seasons.
Saline has made the playoffs in each of Palka’s seasons. Prior to the Palka era, the Hornets had only qualified in back-to-back seasons once.