By Ben Murphy
At first glance, Standish-Sterling wide receiver Tyler Walker appeared open. However, Panther quarterback Brian LeClair’s deep pass stayed in the air just long enough to allow Clare defensive back Colton Punches to make a play on the ball. Punches took one step in front of Walker, leaped into the air and came down with the game clinching interception at his own 29 yard line.
“I thought that he was just a decoy at first,” Punches said of the play that clinched the Pioneer’s 29-24 division five district championship win over Standish Friday night. “Then I saw that they were going to throw to him. I ran back as fast as I could, looked up and went to the ball.”
With just 27 seconds left in the contest after the interception and the Panthers out of timeouts, Pioneer quarterback Zack Tyler had to take just one knee to run off the clock for Clare’s second district championship in the last four years.
“It sure feels good,” Clare head coach Kelly Luplow said of winning the district trophy. “It never gets old. It’s always a goal and your first step in the playoffs is to get this and keep moving on. I’m especially happy for the kids, primarily because of the way we started the season, it’s a nice accomplishment for them.”
A win for Clare (9-2) seemed out of the question early on, as the Panthers (7-4) put together two quick scoring drives in the first quarter to lead 14-0.
“Early in the game we were running the power half way decent, getting up inside and our passing game came to life for us,” Standish head coach Paul Walderzak said. “Defensively we did a nice job shutting them down a couple of times. Our nose guard, Anthony Prohaska was playing a heck of game but then he got his knee hurt at the end of the first quarter. That caused us a lot of problems.”
Standish’s first scoring play occurred with 8:08 remaining in the first quarter when LeClair scored on an eight yard quarterback keeper, and after a Clare punt, the Panther’s struck again with 4:40 to play in the first, this time on a 39 yard touchdown pass from LeClair to Clay Walderzak. Dan Miller booted in both extra points to give Standish its early two possession lead.
“There were some broken plays,” Luplow said of the team’s sluggish start. “We had some coverage problems early on as far as how they were running routes and how we were covering them.”
The Pioneers started their next possession on their own 33 yard line, but had to punt the ball away on a fourth-and-five. Hunter Ruby’s punt went out of bounds at the Standish 47 yard line with 2:41 to play in the first.
On the Panther’s third play of the drive, Brandon Ayris picked off a LeClair pass, giving the Pioneers the ball on their own 45 yard line.
Putting together its first scoring drive of the night, Clare used just five plays to get a Jordan Gross touchdown run from six yards out. Logan Emery booted in the extra point to make it 14-7 with 11:55 to play in the first half.
Standish quickly put up more points on the scoreboard, answering with a five play 57 yard drive ending in another Walderzak 39 yard touchdown reception from LeClair. Miller converted the extra point to make it 21-7 at the 10:37 mark.
Spencer Harrell fielded the ensuing kickoff at his own 25 yard line, followed his blockers to the right side of the field and raced for a 50 yard return to the Panther 25 yard line.
Cashing in on their good field position, the Pioneers scored in just four plays, getting a six yard score by Gross, who bulled his way into the endzone carrying in two would-be Standish tacklers on the play.
Emery’s extra point was perfect to make it 21-14 with 9:12 to play in the half.
Standish appeared well on its way to score another touchdown, driving 78 yards on 10 plays to get a first and goal at the six yard line.
On first and goal Clare stuffed Matt Crawford for no gain. On second down, Crawford bruised his way to the two yard line to set up a third-and-goal.
Standish was flagged for illegal procedure before it could snap the ball on the next play, setting up a third-and-goal from the seven, on which Crawford was stopped without a gain for the second time in three carries.
On fourth-and-goal from the seven with 2:49 left in the half, Miller booted in a 24 yard field goal to give the Panthers a 24-14 lead, in what would be their last points of the contest.
After a quick three and out by Clare, Standish gambled on a long pass play near midfield. The gamble backfired when Spencer Harrell intercepted the pass and returned it 23 yards to the Panther 43 yard line with 45 seconds left.
On the drive’s first play Zack Tyler tossed a pass across the middle to Gross for a big gain to the 13 yard line.
Two short runs and an incomplete pass set up a fourth and four at the seven yard line with four seconds left on the clock.
On the fourth down attempt, Tyler rolled out of the pocket to the right and fired a pass to Ruby in the front right corner of the end zone for a touchdown on the last play of the half. Ruby booted in the extra point to make the score 24-21 at the half.
“We haven’t had a great kicking game on extra points and field goals this year so we just decided to go for it, to take a chance on it,” Luplow said. “Had we not scored on that we would have looked back on that play and asked why didn’t we kick, but it worked out to our advantage. Everything just kind of worked out on that play and it was a huge turning point. Going in at halftime like that was definitely a huge factor.”
After a short return to open the second half, Clare started at its own 35 yard line. The Pioneers ran 11 plays and took almost five minutes off the clock and scored on a 29 yard touchdown pass from Tyler to Ruby, who out-jumped two defenders to make the catch.
Tyler ran in the two-point conversion with a keeper to the left to give Clare it’s first lead of the night at 29-24 with 7:33 to play in the third quarter.
Clare’s defense made the points stand up the rest of the way, stopping the Panther’s final five drives, none of which reached more than 10 yards into Pioneer territory.
“I just never felt, even when we were down that we were going to be out of the game,” Luplow said. “I knew our defense was going to stop their running game and adjust to their passing game and that we would move the ball on offense. We changed our alignments a little bit and took away some of the things that they were doing earlier in the game.”
Though LeClair finished with 227 passing yards, most of those were in the first half as the Pioneer defense clamped down, limiting the Panthers to just one first down in the second half and also forced Punches’ interception.
“We had a lot of guys going after that ball,” Luplow said of the final interception. “Punches had enough time to adjust, get under the ball and make the play. He made an adjustment and when he went up for it it was all his. He wasn’t going to let anyone else get it.”
Clare was led by Gross with 98 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 26 carries and James Simon added 41 yards on eight carries.
Tyler finished six-of-13 passing for 92 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Ruby led the receivers with 37 yards and two touchdowns on two catches, Brock Swan made three catches for 30 yards and Gross made one catch for 25 yards.
Mitch Greenacre led the Clare defense with 19 tackles, Joe McGuire had 13, with Logan Emery, Harrell and Nick Montini all had six.
Standish was led by LeClair’s 227 yards and two touchdowns passing, completing 10-of-18 passes. Matt Crawford ran 18 times for 94 yards, Clay Walderzak made five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns and Walker had two catches for 88 yards. Miller added 12 tackles to lead the Panther defense.
The loss ends the Panther’s bid for their first district title since 2008.
“I tell you what, that’s a tough loss,” Walderzak said. “It’s not just tough loss for us but its a tough loss for anybody in that situation. We had a good season, from start to finish our kids came a long ways and played better and better football. I’m very proud of these kids. We lost Friday night but we had a heck of game.”
Meanwhile the Pioneers, who won their first district championship 2009 with the win travel to Menominee on Saturday.
“I just thought that for the second week in a row our kids were prepared very well mentally,” Luplow said. “If you’re prepared mentally your physical paly is going to be a lot better. That’s a tough thing to do two weeks in a row… (but) I’m looking for another week of that.”