FOOTBALL: Canton Defeats Saline, 32-20, In Opening Round of MHSAA Playoffs.

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Canton (7-3) scored the game's first 20 points and defeated Saline, 32-20,  eliminating the Hornets  (9-1) from the MHSAA Division 1 football playoffs.

The Hornets knew they had a tough district (Belleville defeated Huron, 14-10 in the other game). Still, it was a tough loss to swallow after going 9-0 in the regular season and winning the SEC Red.

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Saline head coach Joe Palka said he was proud of the way the Hornets rebounded in the third quarter to make it a game.

"I couldn't love this team more. It could have been 40-0, the way things were going in the first half. To battle back and midway through the fourth quarter only be down six, I couldn't be prouder of them," Palka said.  "That's been the hallmark of this team all year. No matter what adversity they had, they always found a way to overcome it. We just fell a little short today. We're not going to focus on that as much as we will celebrate the accomplishments this team had this year."

Those accomplishments include another SEC Red conference title, a perfect 9-0 record (the seventh undefeated regular season in program history), a top 10 ranking in the AP poll, and the third most playoff points in the state. 

The Hornets, depleted by injuries, expected a tough game from Canton. The weather made them even tougher.

"It's a tough draw on a tough night. It's pouring down rain. You've got Canton, who possesses the ball. We've got (two starting offensive linemen) guys getting hurt during the game and still battling back. We came into the game with (Zach) Antal and (Sam) Frush. And, over time, it becomes tough to overcome that," Palka said. 

The Hornets lost several players to season-ending injuries, including senior starting QB Larry Robinson, who was hurt before the start of week two.

The Hornets' defense struggled against the Canton running game. Saline kicked off to Canton. The Chiefs marched down the field, exclusively on the ground, and scored on a 12-yard run by Zack Badger, taking nearly seven minutes off the clock. Joe Raupp blocked the kick - which seemed to give the Hornets life after a tough defensive series.

And, in fact, the Hornet offense came out firing. First, Caden Winston returned the kickoff about 25 yards to the Canton 49. QB CJ Carr seemed unfazed by the wind and the rain. he passed to Roman Laurio for a first down. RB Josh Rush, playing full time with Zach Antal out due to injury, ran for a first down.

On first and goal from the 9, CJ Carr threw for Gavin Mesman in the end zone, but the ball was just out of reach of Mesman, who faced double coverage. On second down, Rush ran the ball down to the two. On third down, he ran a sweep and was brought down inches from the goal line. On fourth down, CJ Carr rolled out and found Dylan Mesman wide open just inside the end zone. The throw was just a little behind him, and when Mesman held up, he slipped on the wet turf.

The Hornets turned the ball over downs.

On first down, they nearly got it back. The Chiefs fumbled the snap in the end zone but recovered.

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Two plays later, on third and long, Canton rushed up the middle to move the chains. They went 99 yard and scored again - on a one-yard run by Caleb Williams. They led 13-0.

Saline's next offensive drive when nowhere. And on 4th-and-3 from their own 29, the Hornets went for it, CJ Carr completed the pass - but they didn't pass the marker. 

Canton ran 30 yards up the field and scored. Drew Contos ran up the middle for a seven-yard touchdown. The kick was good. Canton led 20-0. The Chiefs took that lead into the dressing room.

At this point, considering the steady rain, the wind, the rain and the score, it was starting to feel like Canton's opening-round blow-out win over Saline four years ago. But this Saline team had no intention of rolling over.

Penalties helped move the Hornets up the field. Josh Rush also caught a big third-down pass to move the chains once. And then CJ Carr threw a perfect ball for the sprinting Roman Laurio who made the catch and fell into the end zone. Riley Behrman's kick was good. Canton led 20-7.

Saline's defense then got the stop it wanted. Joe Raupp made the tackle on 3rd-and-4 and the Chiefs punted. The Hornets took over at their own 24. Carr threw to Winston and Rush for first downs. Then, from the 32, Carr connected with Winston on a slant. Winston caught the ball at about the 29. He fought off one tackler and then slipped another and made it all the way down to the 6. Two plays later, Carr threw to Winston. Canton's lead was 20-14 with 6:40 to play in the third quarter.

Unfortunately for the Hornets, they couldn't get stop the Chiefs on their next drive. Working with a short field after a squib kick didn't work, Canton again ran down the field. With 4:05 to play in the third, Contos rushed in from one yard out.  Justin Burton blocked the kick. Canton led 26-14.

The Hornets took over at their own 9-yard line. Carr threw to Roman Laurio, who made the catch around the 15, broke several tackles and ran out to the 43. Carr then used his feet for another first down, rushing for 24 yards to Canton's 33. Rush took a handoff and ran down the 14 yard line line. A couple plays later, Rush ran the ball in from the four. The kick hit the upright and bounced out. Canton led 26-20.

"Those guys just made play after play after play," Palka said. "On a night when it was going to be difficult to throw the ball, yards after the catch were going to be important. Those guys were just warriors tonight," Palka said. "Roman finding away. Josh finding away, playing through injury. Caden Winston had one of his strongest games, saving it for the end. Your best players have to step up to even have a chance to come back, and I thought our guys did that."

The defense came up with a stop for Saline - giving the Hornets the chance they needed. But Saline's next drive, early in the fourth, was thwarted by penalties and fumbled snap on third down. The Hornets punted. Canton scored on a keeper by Arturo Trevino. Their two-point conversion was stopped by the Saline defense.  Canton led 32-20.

The Hornets were unable to generate the miracle finish they needed.

View photos from the game here.

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