FOOTBALL: Valiant Effort Comes Up Short, Saline Season Ends at Belleville

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Into the third quarter, the Saline matched Belleville, punch for punch, but in the end, the top-ranked Tigers were were just a bit too strong and fast for the Hornets, and Belleville won the district championship game, 66-44.

Saline finished the season with an 8-3 record.

Last week, several Hornets said they thought Saline might just shock the state in their game at Belleville.  The Tigers have been ranked as the state's top Division 1 team since the pre-season. They went 9-0 in the regular season, only once giving up more than 14 points (in a 49-22 win over Dearborn). That 27-point victory over Dearborn was also their smallest margin of victory.

To say the Tigers were the heavy favorites is an understatement.

And yet after the first half, the game was tied at 28, and it looked like the Hornets might just pull off the upset of the playoffs.

In the end, fate had other ideas, but Saline football coach Joe Palka, never one to look for a lot of silver linings in a loss, was visibly moved when talking about his players' effort after Friday's game.

"We've always preached toughness and we talk about being mentally tough, we were not only mentally tough tonight, we were physically tough," Palka said. "It's one of the most impressive performances I've ever been around. I know we didn't win, but how we rallied and how hard the kids played, they just never quit - it was something."

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Palka said losing is tough - especially for the seniors who've played their final game.

"It's always tough, but the reality is, in a few days, they're going to look back and see an unbelievably impressive performance," Palka said. "I think we shocked a lot of people in Michigan. I know we didn't get the win, but the way we played and the amount of points we put up and how we kept battling, physically and mentally, it was just really impressive."

Saline junior QB CJ Carr had a monster game. He completed 37 of 53 pass attempts for 383 yards and 5  TDs.  Under pressure all night, CJ danced around the backfield, eluding defenders before spying open receivers and finding them with perfect throws. It was likely the best game yet for the star QB.

"It was the biggest stage of the year. The lights were shining brightly. And he came and played as advertised," Palka said. "He's really grown over the last three weeks. He single-handedly made just a ton of plays to keep us alive tonight. He kept getting hit, kept making throws, he would scramble and keep things alive. It was just a phenomenal job by that kid. He saved his best for last. The stats won't lend themself to how well he played."

Garrett Baldwin caught 9 passes for 138 yards and a TD. He also ran for a touchdown.  

Baldwin exemplified the mental and physical toughness Palka had talked about. In the second quarter, with Saline down 21-14, Baldwin caught pass and a Belleville player grabbed him by his ankle. As he tried to spin out of the hold, he took a hard hit from behind and fell face-first into the turf with a Tiger on his back. Two plays later, he was in the game and he took another hard hit as he slid out of bounds.

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He capped the drive on a sweep and was met with a heavy hit at the goal line - but he pushed through and scored.

Caid Fox caught 9 passes for 130 yards and 3 TDs.  Roman Laurio caught 11 passes for 83 yards. Dylan Mesman caught five passes. Tate Bezeau caught a TD pass (and recovered a fumble).  

On defense, Sullivan Mills forced that fumble and made 5.5 tackles. Baldwin, Cade Tousa and James Rush also each made five tackles. Ryan Stein made 4.5 tackles. Sam Kreuzer had 4 tackles and a sack.

Palka said the Belleville team was comparable to a MAC college team.

"They are so big up front and just had the ability to wear us down. When you are that big and physical up front it doesn't matter, sooner or later it doesn't matter how much you blitz or how many guys you load in the box, they'll be able to move you," Palka said. "Every one of those guys were so explosive. Their quarterback was good. Their running backs were hard to bring down and when they got us in the open field."

The 19 seniors on the Hornet football program showed the underclass players that a state championship is truly attainable.

"We always have that break at the end of practice where we say 'state champs on 3.' I am sure there have been times when guys have said 'Are we really going to compete for a state championship?' And I told them tonight, you're this close," Palka said, pinching his finger toward his thumb. "These seniors set the stage for showing these guys that it's attainable. I don't know if Belleville will win the state championship, but that's the best array of talent in the state of Michigan. For us to do what we did tonight and have an opportunity to win that game shows you that it can be done."

Belleville scored on its first drive of the game on a touchdown by Jeremiah Beasley.

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Saline got the seven points right back. CJ Carr threw a 39 yard TD pass to Baldwin.

The Tigers replied with a 24-yard TD run by Adrian Walker. The two-point conversion failed and Belleville led 13-7.

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Saline answered with a long drive that ended with Carr scrambling around and, surrounded by Tigers, finding Tate Bezeau at the goal line with a pass. Saline led 14-13 after Riley Behrman's kick.

Belleville ended the first quarter with Bryce Underwood throwing a TD pass to Julian Johnson. Bedford took a 21-14 lead into the second quarter after the two-point conversion by Adrian Walker.

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Saline tied the game in the second quarter with a long drive capped by the aforementioned touchdown by Baldwin. The score was 21-21 after Behrman's kick.

It took Belleville less than two minutes to replay with Underwood throwing a touchdown pass to Mychal Yharbrough. Belleville led 28-21.

Until this point, Saline had matched Belleville punch-for-punch.

The Hornets next drive got down to the 16 yard line when they ran into trouble. Facing fourth and long, Carr threw to Laurio, who was a few yards short of the market. Trying to stay up and press forward to the first down marker, a Tiger knocked the ball loose and Belleville recovered.

It looked like the Tigers might finally have the upperhand. But Saline got the ball back. 

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First, Kreuzer sacked the quarterback. Then Kreuzer and Mills got to the QB again and Mills knocked the ball loose. Bezeau fell on the ball. Saline got the ball back with less than a minute remaining in the half. It took no time at all for Carr to find Fox in the end zone.

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After Behrman's kick, the game was tied at 28.

The Hornets went into the dressing room at halftime feeling like their plan to shock the state was unfolding perfectly.

But things didn't go as well in the third quarter. A couple of penalties set the Hornets back.on the first drive of the quarter and Saline punted the ball of way. Unfortunately for the Hornets, the Tigers just kept rolling. Beasely finished a scoring drive with a 25-yard touchdown. Saline blocked the kick. Belleville led 34-28.

Saline's next drive stalled at midfield, and this time CJ Carr punted the ball. Belleville's next drive started at its five. On first down, Beazely ran for 29 yards. A few plays later, he powered through the defense for a 20-yard touchdown. The two-point conversion failed. Belleville led 40-28.

The Hornet offense regained its form late in the third and early in the fourth. But a third-down sack of Carr set the Hornets back eight yards. Behrman kicked a 28-yard field goal. Saline was down 40-31 early in the fourth.

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Belleville replied with a 3-play, 65-yard scoring drive finished by a 52-yard touchdown run by Beasley. Belleville led 48-31.

The Hornets kept fighting. Carr engineered six-play, 2:14 drive that ended with a 30-yard TD pass to Caid Fox. Fox showed great speed, taking the short pass and then cutting back to the middle before taking into the end zone. Behrman's kick was good. Belleville led 48-38.

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Saline couldn't keep Belleville out of the end zone.

On the second play, Underwood passed to Joseph Stephens for a 56-yard TD.  Belleville led 56-38.

Saline got the ball back with 6:24 to play and went 64-yards. Again, the drive was capped by a CJ Carr TD pass to Fox.

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Saline's two-point conversion attempt didn't succeed. Belleville led 56-44.

Belleville scored a touchdown with  five seconds left and won 62-44.

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