The Saline football team finally ran out of bullets against Clarkston, as it fell 21-3, in the MHSAA Division state semifinal at Okemos High School Saturday.
In Clarkston, the Hornets faced a team a lot like Rockford. They were well coached and disciplined. But they were much bigger on the offensive and defensive lines. And they had a mobile quarterback who could move around the pocket and deliver passes or get to the outside and gain valuable yards.
Clarkston scored on their first possession and added touchdowns in the second and third quarters. Saline managed a couple of long drives but came away only with JT Turner’s field goal – scored on the Hornets’ first possession.
Saline needed its running game, which struggled this season against bigger and better defenses, to be at its best last week. But with leading rusher Brendan Munday (14 TDs, 1160 yards) out with an injury, and behind an offensive line that was much smaller than Clarkston’s defensive line, the Hornets struggled to run the football (20 carries for 58 yards).
After the game, coach Joe Palka didn’t spend much time talking to his team about the game. Instead, Palka focused on what on what the team accomplished:
- Another SEC Red championship.
- A district championship.
- A regional championship.
- The second final four appearance in program history.
- An 11-game winning streak – matching the best any Saline team has posted since playoff football was instituted.
- Just two losses – both to teams playing in the championship.
Palka, in the past, has rarely been one to speak of moral victories after losses. Going back to opening night, when a young Saline team played Chippewa Valley tough (The five-point margin of victory has been the smallest so far for the Big Reds), Palka couldn’t hide how pleased he was with his team’s effort. After Saturday’s loss, Palka refused to make excuses. But he was clearly impressed by what his team accomplished.
“I feel differently this year. No one should hang their head. There shouldn't be a lot of drama after the game because to get to this point is an unbelievable accomplishment,” Palka said. “We're measured in terms of where we're at in state competition and winning the state championship. This team, for what their actual skill level was, to get us into the top four with a chance to play for a state championship is a phenomenal accomplishment. That's what I wanted (the team) to focus on. It was a really special year in a lot of ways - maybe more than any other.”
The Hornets have a roster of exceptional and specialized coaches. They have second-to-none facilities and resources to teach the game to these young men. And in the Palka era, they’ve had had the uncanny ability to convince kids to buy in.
A year ago, the Hornets were coming off an opening round loss to Canton. It was perhaps the most disappointing football game in the Palka era. Then they entered this season with a lot of talk about “Saline being down this year.” Yet somehow, they turned into one of the state’s best football teams.
How? You could spot the clues throughout the loss Saturday.
Late in the fourth quarter, during Saline’s last offensive possession, the game was out of reach. But there, along the sidelines, the defense was huddled around defensive coordinator Duane Wilson as he continued to “teaching football” to his team. Instead of drifting off and wondering what might have been, and what next season might hold, they were glued to their coach’s analysis and instructions.
“We have great kids. The biggest thing they did is listened. They listened and learned and kept focusing on getting better throughout the course of the year,” Palka said.
This team also had the mental ability to forget about the last play and move on to the next.
That means not getting too high after a 3rd-and-1 stop. And not getting too low after not making the stop on 4th-and-2. That meant a defense that bent from time to time rarely broke. It was also faith that on offense that sometimes struggled would eventually hit paydirt.
“We talk about living to play another down. We’re not worried about drawing a line in the dirt,” coach Wilson said last week. “Eventually, we just think you’re going to put it on the turf or screw something up, or one of us is going to make a big play.”
Palka said this team possessed unique mental toughness.
“They didn't get too high or too low. When adversity was going against them they always found a way to battle,” Palka said. “Our defense was a good example of this today. Obviously, we were not going to score points today and they could have caved. And they didn't. That's really the personality of this team. They're just battlers.”
Those are lessons these seniors left for the underclassmen. But they’re more than that.
Next man up. One week better. Live to play another down. Fight through adversity.
These kids weren’t just learning football.
They were learning the lessons of life.