CRYSTAL FALLS—Last year, L’Anse ended Forest Park’s football season early in the playoffs. On Nov. 8, it nearly happened again.
But some big defensive plays, including a pair of late interceptions by Connor Kezerle, preserved a 16-9 Trojan lead and kept the team’s perfect season untarnished.
“I just thought we played an A+ defensively,” Coach Bill Santilli said after the game, “which is what we needed when we could only muster 16 points of offense.”
Now 11-0, Forest Park will host North Dickinson Nov. 15 in the regional championship game at Dick Mettlach Field. Kickoff is at 6 p.m.
Forest Park scored both its touchdowns in the first half, but L’Anse got one back with 32 seconds left till halftime when halfback Jimmy Veker threw a jump pass to Jonny Magaraggia, who dodged would-be tacklers for a 73-yard score. The two-point pass attempt failed, and the Trojans led 16-6 at halftime.
Just like at the Gogebic game the week before, Trojan coaches told their team at halftime how important the first possession of the second half would be. Maybe they better dump that speech: On the first play after the kickoff, the Trojans missed a handoff, and L’Anse recovered at the FP 17.
“It seemed like we were playing in our half of the field for the whole third quarter,” Santilli said. “A nightmare of a start.” But the defense sacked L’Anse twice and got the ball back.
Moments later, L’Anse got another chance—a Trojan punt only went 9 yards, giving L’Anse the ball at the Purple Hornets 42. A pass interference penalty led to a first down at the Trojan 15.
FP’s defense held again, but Ryan LaBerge kicked a 34-yard field goal to make it a one-possession game—FP 16, L’Anse 9—with 4:57 left in the third quarter.
Seventeen minutes to protect a seven-point lead.
Back and forth, with the Trojans trying to use up time and L’Anse battling for one more chance. Midway through the fourth quarter, L’Anse threw a long pass intercepted by Kezerle at the Trojan 6. He returned it to the 26.
More danger lay ahead. With five minutes left, FP had to punt—and the snap sailed over Austin Snell’s head. He fell on it at the Trojan 32, where L’Anse took over.
It came down to 4th and 10 at the 32, when Kezerle made his second big play, outjumping Veker for his second interception. Trojan ball at the FP 6 with 3½ minutes left.
“We were able to grind it out,” Santilli said. Lee Graff’s 16-yard run gave FP breathing room, and QB Jeff Johnson ran three sneaks for 36 total yards. L’Anse used up its time-outs and then time ran out on its season. Whew!
“Just a tense game,” Santilli said. “L’Anse knocking on our door two times and then Kezerle picking off two balls at our 5.”
Poor footing played a role. Snow was cleared from the field on the morning of the game, but the grass was still slick and greasy at kickoff. “As the game went on,” Santilli said, “it was just all chewed up.” Referees allowed both teams to move their offensive snaps to the hashmarks, away from the center of the field where the footing was worst.
Forest Park scored on its first possession, covering 56 yards in 13 plays, with Graff and Raymond Tomasik carrying the ball. Graff scored from 4 yards out and added the conversion run for an 8-0 lead.
The Trojans got a big break early in the second quarter, when L’Anse QB LaBerge bobbled a snap and Adam Hilberg recovered at the Purple Hornets 33. After Graff converted a 4th and 1 play, Snell broke free for a 21-yard touchdown. Johnson’s two-point pass to Kevin Nocerini put the Trojans up 16-0.
Santilli praised Assistant Coach Dave Graff’s tactics to contain LaBerge, a second-team all-conference QB in the West Pac Conference. FP focused on pressuring on him and keeping him in the pocket. The treacherous footing and wet ball also helped.
Santilli said Connor Dalpra and Nocerini kept pressuring the QB, and the Trojans finished with five sacks. The Purple Hornets finished with negative yards rushing for the game—including 53 yards LaBerge lost on sacks.
Team stats: Forest Park, 258 total yards (59-247 rushing, 1-5-11 passing), L’Anse, 122 total yards (18-minus 34 rushing, 7-18-156 passing). First downs: FP 16, L’Anse 5.
Individual stats: Rushing: Lee Graff, 33-142; Austin Snell, 8-54; Raymond Tomasik, 7-38; Jeff Johnson, 11-13. Passing: Johnson, 1-5-11. Receiving: Graff, 1-11. L’Anse rushing: Jimmy Veker, 6-15. L’Anse passing: Ryan LaBerge, 6-15-83; Veker, 1-2-73. L’Anse receiving: Jonny Magaraggia, 5-114; Ryan Beauprey, 1-40.
Defense (tackles-assists): Graff, 6-3; Adam Hilberg, 2-4; Tomasik, 2-3; Connor Kezerle, 3-1. Fumble recoveries: Hilberg, Jeff Marchi. Forced fumbles: Zach Aberly 2, Marchi. Interceptions: Kezerle 2. Hurries: Connor Dalpra, 2. Sacks: five total.
• The Trojans face North Dickinson for the regional title on Nov. 15. Forest Park beat the Nordics 43-20 back on Oct. 4, but at that time ND was missing its star running back, Tim Hruska, out with an ankle injury.
He’s back in action now, and the Nordics (now 8-2) have been a different team since. They defeated North Central 34-13 on Nov, 8 to win their district title.
The Nordics were 6-2 during the regular season on an eight-game schedule. ND’s only other loss was to Lake Linden (16-8) in Week 8.
P.Hornets 0 6 3 0 -- 9
Trojans 8 8 0 0 -- 16