By Ben Murphy
A pair of fumbles nearly gave the game away but Clare responded in time to win Friday night’s Jack Pine Conference football game over visiting Meridian, 24-13, giving the Pioneers their seventh straight league championship.
“It’s a good feeling, the kids were excited,” Clare head coach Kelly Luplow said. “We came out, played hard and the kids wanted it. They were excited about it being the seventh in a row. I was happy for them.”
After a scoreless first quarter Camden Dice kicked in a 27-yard field goal to give Clare a 3-0 lead less than a minute into the second. Clare extended on that lead in the final minute of the half when Colton Punches found Charlie Bugbee for a 23-yard touchdown pass and a Dice extra point made it 10-0 at the half.
Bugbee returned the second half’s kick off into Meridian territory, and Clare quickly made the score 17-0 on a seven yard quarterback keeper by Punches and another Dice extra point.
“We felt real good about it,” Luplow said about the lead. “Then, we could have put it away on the next drive.”
Instead of putting the game away however, the Pioneers let the Mustangs back in the game. On its next drive Clare fumbled the ball away one-yard away from the end-zone. Meridian answered with its first scoring drive of the night, getting a 19-yard touchdown pass from Christian Petre to Kevin Scheirbert and Scheirbert added the extra point to make it 17-7 after the third.
Then, Clare fumbled the ball away yet again deep in the Meridian end, this time fumbling the ball into the endzone, which Meridian recovered to force a touch-back.
On the next play Scheirbert hit Petre again for a touchdown, this time for an 80-yard score, putting the game into question at 17-13 with almost 10 minutes left to play.
“All of a sudden, because of a couple of plays we were fighting for our lives,” Luplow said. “From there, we put together a good drive. One key play was a third-and-seven pass to Paul Cole for a first down. Then we pounded with Jordan Gross the rest of the way down the field.”
Gross finished off the 20-play eight minute drive with a two yard run with 1:03 left to play and Dice added his third extra point of the night to ice the game at 24-13.
“Gross set a single game rushing record with 46 carries,” Luplow said. “I’ve never had anybody come close to that.”
The win gave Clare not only its seventh straight league title but its 12th in the last 14 years.
Gross finished with 178 yards on 46 carries and one touchdown. Punches was five-of-10 passing for 121 yards and a touchdown and also ran 19 times for 63 yards and a score.
Bugbee had two catches for 62 yards and a touchdown and Logan Emery had one catch for 37 yards.
Emery also had a team high six tackles, Nick Montini had five, Gross had four with Zach Betzer, Kyler Zinser and Cole all bringing down three.
“Zinser filled in at middle linebacker (for Joe McGuire) and did an adamant job filling in, that was important for us,” Luplow said.
Clare (7-2 overall, 7-0 JPC) plays at Reed City (9-0 overall, 9-0 Central State Conference) tonight in the division five pre-districts.