FOOTBALL: Saline Caps Unbeaten Regular Season With 34-21 Win Over Lake Orion

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Luke Masters and Giusseppe Gottfried help Gavin Messman (#5) celebrate the first of his two touchdown catches.

CJ Carr threw two touchdown passes to Gavin Messman and Josh Rush returned from injury to rush for two touchdowns as Saline defeated Lake Orion, 34-21, to finish the regular season at 9-0. Riley Behrman kicked two field goals and was 4-for-4 on point-after attempts.

It's the seventh undefeated regular season in the history of Saline football - and the third in Joe Palka's 10 years as head coach.

"Only seven teams in the history of Saline football have gone undefeated, as far as I know. It just continues to be a really good group," Palka said. "I'm so proud of them to see it all the way through. We always talk about finishing - and they did."

The game began like it might be a defensive struggle.

Saline's defense forced Lake Orion to punt after three plays, with Blake Wilson pressuring the quarterback on third down. The Hornets took over at their own 29. On first down, Zach Antal ran 54 yards to move the ball to the Lake Orion 17. The Hornets continued to move the ball on the ground, gaining another first down. But Lake Orion didn't break. And with a goal line stand, they kept the Hornets' first possession from reaching the end zone.

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The Hornet defense continued to swarm the Dragon offense and once again, Saline got the ball back. This time, the drive started at the 42. CJ Carr passed to Garrett Baldwin for a long gain to the Lake Orion 15.

Again, the Dragons' defense refused to break. Riley Behrman kicked a 25-yard field goal to give Saline  a 3-0 lead.

The Dragons managed to move the ball well on the next drive. This time it was Saline's turn for a goal-line stand. On 4th-and-goal from the three, Dohnovan Chambell broke through the line and laid a hit on the running back before he could get back to scrimmage.

The Hornets began a 97-yard drive. Carr passed to Caden Winston and Josh Rush. Carr passed to Sam Frush for a big gain. From the five-yard line, Carr passed to Gavin Mesman in the corner of the endzone.

It was the first of two touchdown connections between Carr and Mesman. With 44 seconds left in the half, Saline's offense got the ball back at its own 35. Rush gained a lot of yards after catching a screen pass from Carr. Then Carr passed to Roman Laurio for another big gain down to the one-yard line.

With just a few seconds remaining, Carr threw to Mesman in the left corner of the end zone.

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Coach Palka explained the way Mesman has helped the team in his senior year after missing most of his junior year with an injury.

"He does it all for us. He blocks a ton. He's a really physical blocker. He makes the tough catches and he just flat-out wins in those goal-line situations," Palka said. "Everybody knew we were going to do it (throw to Mesman), but it didn't matter. He still was able to get it done."

Saline led 17-0 at halftime and struck first in the third quarter. Antal's great kick return moved Saline out to midfield to start the quarter. Facing 4th-and-1, Rush took the handoff and ran past the first down marker. Carr's pass to Laurio moved the ball down to the Lake Orion five-yard line. On the next play, Rush ran a sweep and scored. Saline led 24-0.

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Lake Orion finally put points up on the board on its next drive. The Dragons gained most of their yards on a long passing play before punching it in from the one-yard line. Saline led 24-7 and added to its lead on the next possession. A substantial portion of the yardage of the next drive  came on a passing play between Carr and Baldwin, with Baldwin fighting through the defense all the way down the 11.

Rush ran for an 11-yard touchdown, bouncing off a tackler on his way to the end zone.

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Coach Palka said the team welcomed the return of their speedy senior running back, who had missed the previous eight games with an ankle injury.

"It certainly gives us more options. It gives us explosiveness again. Zach (Antal), (Blaise) Blastos, and (Ryan) Niethammer have been doing a great job. We've got a deep running back situation right now," Palka said. "Josh is a veteran. He provides that extra gear. That was on display tonight and I think people were excited to see it."

Lake Orion added another touchdown when Carr's pass was knocked down and intercepted and returned for six points. Saline led 31-14.

Saline's next drive resulted in another field goal by Behrman.

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Lake Orion added another touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Playoff Points

The Hornets are obviously in the playoffs at 9-0. They finished the season with 82.333 playoff points, which ties them for second with Romeo among Division 1 teams. Only Rockford, at 9-0, has more points.

The latest "mapetology" projection from Snooze2you.com shows Saline in a district with Belleville (8-1), Huron (8-1) and Canton (6-3). The Saline football team will watch the Sunday Selection Show, which will reveal the districts and brackets, at Dan's Downtown Tavern Sunday.

Palka isn't worried about those who might say Saline's record is inflated by a weak SEC Red schedule, but he knows Saline could have a really tough district.

"It's just the luck of being where we are at (geographically). I will say this. This year, the SEC was the best it's been in the 10 years I've been here, so I think that's prepared us," Palka said. "Also, when you play Hudsonville and Lake Orion, big physical teams, hopefully, that prepares us as well."

The Hornets will have to scout, continue to practice well and take down any giants they might face.

"We've got to figure out who the next opponent will be, scout them like crazy and just keep getting one-day better," Palka said. "The projection right now looks tough, but you're going to have to beat them sooner or later, whether it's early or whether it's late."

The Hornets feel confident they can beat teams with physical advantages.

"This team was built to compete with teams like that. We may not have the physical size other teams do, but what we do scheme-wise and how hard the kids play makes a difference," Palka said.

Unbeaten Seasons

This is the seventh unbeaten season in the history of the team and the fifth 9-0 season.

  • 2021 - 9-0
  • 2016 - 9-0
  • 2015 - 8-0
  • 1990 - 9-0
  • 1983 - 9-0
  • 1979 - 9-0
  • 1962 - 7-0-1

Palka Era

Joe Palka has now coached Saline for 10 seasons. His record is now 78-7 in the regular season. In the 10 years before Palka coached in Saline, the Hornets were a very respectable 51-39. 

The Interviews

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