FOOTBALL: Clutch Defense Leads Saline to District Championship

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Saline used one big play, one good drive, and clutch defense all night long to defeat Holt, 14-8, and win their MHSAA Division 1 district championship game Friday at Hornet Stadium.

It was the sixth district championship since 2012, the year coach Joe Palka took command of the program.

The Hornets advance to the regional final next week at Rockford. The game will likely be played at 1 p.m., Saturday. Rockford defeated Grandville, 34-28, in a game that required three overtimes to decide. The winner advances to the semifinal.

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After the game and trophy presentation, the Hornets huddled on the aux field and celebrated loudly for 45 seconds. Saline football coach Joe Palka said the team decided after the loss at Grand Blanc that they "weren't going to smile until they won their trophy."

"We talk about finding a way. It isn't necessarily how you script it, but they found a way, just like last week," said Saline football coach Joe Palka. "Today the defense really found a way for us. The pressure was squarely on them all (second) half and they never buckled. The kids here are just competitors."

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QB Larry Robinson rushed for a 95-yard touchdown and Gavin Lytle capped a 75-yard drive with a two-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter. Those two drives represented 175 of the 233 yards the offense gained on the night. On the other side of the ball, Saline's defense was stellar. Holt had eight possessions. Saline ended five possessions by stopping  Holt on fourth down. Zach Antal picked off a pass to end another possession. Holt scored one touchdown (on a drive in which a penalty overturned a play where the Hornets came up with another fourth-down stop).

"We only had three offensive plays the entire third quarter, so that kind of drains on you, but as long as they don't score, they can't win. As long as we kept them in front of us, and that's what happened on the last drive, they ate so much clock, they had a hard time punching it in," Palka said. "Phenomenal job by Coach (Duane) Wilson and our defense. It was very reminiscent of the Rockford game from a couple years ago. Playoff football is a lot about defense and a lot about just finding away and I'm proud of our kids for doing that tonight."

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The game began with Holt kicking to Saline. The Hornets gained a first down but then had three plays go nowhere and Saline punted the ball away. Running back Bryce Cornelius and quarterback Nicky Johnson moved the ball down to the Saline 10. That's where the Hornets put and end to their momentum. On 4th-and-10, Cornelius ran a dangerous-looking sweep but Zach Antal pushed him just enough that one foot went out of bounds at the five.

Saline had their first fourth-down stop of the night.

On the very next play, Saline QB Larry Robinson raced 95-yards for a touchdown.

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"They called a designed run for me and the O-Line did a perfect block and so did the receivers and it just opened up from there," Robinson said.

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Palka called it an important moment early in the game.

"That was a huge turn of events to stop them down there and not give up any points, and then for us to go 95 yards on one play, with Larry making a great play, it shifted the tide early in the game," Palka said. "When you can up with a play, you don't need many of them, and today we didn't get many, but we got them when we needed them."

On the very next drive, Holt pressed into Saline territory again. Again, Holt found themselves needing to convert on fourth down. This time, Emmanuel Lupascu stopped Cornelius on fourth down. Saline took over at its 25 and moved down the field. Robinson showed elusiveness and calm under pressure as he fled the pocket and found open receivers. One of the biggest gains of the drive was a pass to Josh Rush. Robinson, on the run, passed to Rush on the sideline for a short gain. Rush spun into the middle and picked up another 10 yards. Later in that series, Rush had a long run and was knocked out of bounds at the two-yard line. Gavin Lytle scored from there.

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Things looked even better for Saline when Antal picked off a pass at the Saline 47-yard line. But a promising drive sputtered and Saline punted the ball away.

Holt began and another possession and pushed as far as the Saline 20. Again, they found themselves facing a fourth down. Lupascu chased down Johnson, who threw it away to avoid the sack. Saline took over on downs.

Saline went into the half leading 14-0 and enjoying all the momentum.

But Holt seized the momentum in the third quarter with a 19-play, 80-yard drive that took lasted all but 40 seconds. QB Ayden Vanenkevort replaced the starter and helped Holt gain yards with 5 and 6-yard keepers that kept the chains moving. But as the drive went on, Johnson returned behind center. At one point, it looked like the Hornets stopped Holt again. A fourth-down pass into the end zone fell incomplete with Carter Smith providing coverage. But Smith was called for pass interference. The call drew the ire of Saline's coaching staff and moved the chains. Johnson threw a short pass to Russell Alex for a touchdown and Cornelius rushed in for two points. Saline led 14-8.

Saline got the ball back with a little more than 30 seconds left in the quarter and went 3-and-out. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Braden Ablauf punted and Holt took possession with some momentum. Holt pressed into Hornet territory. This time, a fourth-and-long pass attempt fell incomplete. The Hornets took over but the offense struggled to regain its rhythm. The Hornets punted the ball away and Holt took over with the intent of engineering a game-winning drive.

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But that slow-moving, time-consuming Holt offense quickly found itself running out of time. On 4th-and-long with 43 seconds left, Johnson passed to Jakari Conway. Saline linebacker Gino Geherin wrapped up Conway and dragged him down two yards short of the first down marker - essentially sealing the game.

"I saw the guy coming in and saw the QB getting ready to throw it and I just knew I had to get him short of the first-down line and I just ripped him back," Geherin said. "It was just a great feeling to celebrate with my teammates."

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Geherin was proud of the defensive performance.

"Oh man, it was effort from every single one of our 11 guys. We practice every day so hard and we put in so much work, it just makes it feel that much more sweet to get the victory," Geherin said. "We basically played the whole second half and just battled and we're just super happy with the way it turned out."

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Coach Palka said winning the district championship was a feat.

"It's a big accomplishment. I told the kids, 'You're down to the elite eight right now.' So let's just see what we're about and what we can do next week," Palka said.

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Stats

  • Holt picked up 288 yards to Saline's 233.
  • QB Larry Robinson rushed nine times for 118 yards and a TD. He completed 9 of 14 passes for 77 yards. 
  • RB Josh Rush caught two paces for 21 yards and rushed four times for 23 yards.
  • Gavin Lytle rushed six times for 15 yards and a TD.
  • Nick Walper caught three passes for 11 yards. Eric Peoples caught two passes for 14 yards. Nathan Holmberg caught two paces for 31 yards.
  • Brayden Stavros kicked both extra point attempts through the uprights. 
  • Emmanuel Lupascu led the Hornets with 14 tackles. Max Miller (12), London Parrish (10), Joe Raupp (8), Gino Geherin (8), Brett Baldus (7), Carter Smith (4), Augie Hutchinson (3), Max Koehn (3), Garrett Baldwin (2), Bryce Wizner (2), and John Frick (1), made tackles.
  • Lupascu, Raupp, Miller and Antal made tackles for loss. Antal also had an interception.
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